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Unrest spreads across Mideast, North Africa

Bahrain Shiite opposition leader Hassan Mushaima is greeted by supporters upon his arrival Saturday at Bahrain International Airport in Manama, the capital.


Four people have died in new unrest in the Tunisian capital between stone-throwing protesters and police on the sidelines of demonstrations against the interim government, officials said Saturday.

The Interior Ministry, in a statement, blamed "provocateurs" for fomenting violence in otherwise peaceful rallies and for allegedly using young people as human shields in renewed demonstrations.

The ministry said three people died Saturday, without elaborating. State TV showed a funeral of a 19-year-old man who was killed Friday after being shot through the neck during protests on a central avenue.

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Security forces in Tunis, the capital, fired tear gas to disperse about 300 protesters chanting anti-government slogans at a fresh protest outside the interior ministry.

The protest followed clashes between police and protesters at the same location on Friday that the ministry said left 21 police officers injured and three police stations damaged.

Large numbers of police moved quickly to disperse Saturday's protest and men in civilian clothes and masks, armed with clubs, were seen moving through the streets searching for protesters.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets on Friday demanding the resignation of the country's interim prime minister, an ally of ousted leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In Bahrain, a prominent opposition leader returned home from exile Saturday and urged the Gulf kingdom's rulers to back up promises of political reform with action.

Bahrain's King Hamad later reshuffled his cabinet, changing the functions of five ministers, the official BNA news agency reported, as protesters marched to demand the Sunni rulers stand down.

The moves came on another day of widespread protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa.

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The return to Bahrain of Hassan Mushaima, a senior Shiite figure, could mark a new phase for an anti-government movement in the tiny nation which is strategically important for the U.S. because it hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Mr. Mushaima heads a Shiite group known as Haq, which is considered more hard-line than the main Shiite political bloc that has led two weeks of protests. Mr. Mushaima returned Saturday from several months of voluntary exile in London, with a stop in Lebanon.

He was embraced and kissed by a small group of supporters as he emerged from Bahrain's airport, then called on the government to be more responsive to protesters' demands for far-reaching political reforms.

"Dialogue ... is not enough. Promising is not enough. We have to see something on the ground," he told reporters.

Bahrain's rulers "have promised before but they did not do anything for the nation of Bahrain."

The Bahraini opposition currently appears divided over whether to demand an end to the Sunni monarchy or offer it a chance to remain in exchange for handing powers to the elected parliament.

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Mr. Mushaima did not call directly for the removal of the monarchy, but insisted any changes should grant more power to the people. Asked if he hoped to lead the protest movement, he said: "I'm always saying to the people, `I'm your servant'.'

Daily anti-government protests in Bahrain erupted two weeks ago, as part of a wave of political unrest that is spreading across the Arab world. The movement in Bahrain is led by Shiites who account for about 70 percent of the country's 525,000 people, but have long complained of systematic discrimination and other abuses by the Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries.

On Saturday, thousands of protesters marched from the capital's landmark Pearl Square to the prime minister's office, calling for him to resign. The crowds surrounded the building on three sides and a few police deployed nearby did nothing to intervene.

Tens of thousands had filled the square Friday to boost pressure for sweeping political concessions

Mr. Mushaima had been among a group of Shiite activists accused of plotting to overthrow Bahrain's rulers.

His return to Bahrain was briefly delayed when his passport was confiscated in Beirut on an Interpol warrant Tuesday. But Bahraini authorities suspended the trial this week, and Lebanon returned his passport Friday.

A Bahraini government spokeswoman has said Mr. Mushaima will not be arrested after his return.

Bahrain is the first Gulf state to be thrown into turmoil by the Arab world's wave of change. The unrest is highly significant for Washington because Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which is the Pentagon's main counterweight against Iran's widening military ambitions.

In Algeria, hundreds of demonstrators are protesting in the capital to demand the ouster of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika - but police are out in far larger numbers to counter the protesters.

The protest on central Martyrs Square comes two days after the government ended a 19-year state of emergency born of Algeria's bloody Islamic insurgency. The move aimed to ease tensions after weeks of anti-government strikes and protests.

U.S. President Barack Obama praised that move as a step toward responding to public concerns.

The demonstration Saturday, led by a political opposition party, was far smaller than protests that have brought down autocrats in fellow North African countries of Tunisia or Egypt.

Yemen's embattled president also suffered blows Saturday, with hundreds of thousands calling for his ouster in anti-government rallies, and two powerful chiefs from his own trible abandoning him.

The huge turnout in towns and cities across Yemen and the defection of the tribal chiefs were the latest sign that President Ali Abdullah Saleh may be losing his grip on the impoverished, conflict-ridden country.

Saleh had promised earlier this week that troops would not use force against protesters, except in self defence.

However, Yemeni TV on Saturday quoted him as telling army commanders that the armed forces will not hesitate to "defend the security of the nation as well as the unity, freedom and democracy."

Algeria's Interior Minister says protest marches in the capital of Algiers are still banned.

In Oman, ruler Sultan Qaboos announced Saturday he was boosting social benefits for students, the state-run Oman News Agency reported.

Sultan Qaboos ordered the monthly allowance for students in universities and vocational schools be raised by between 25 and 90 Omani rials ($65 to $234) to "achieve further development and ... provide a decent living for his people," the agency said.

He also ordered the creation of a consumer protection bureau, and was looking into opening cooperatives, according to the report.

Around 300 Omanis, including women, staged a peaceful rally in central Muscat, the capital, on Feb. 18 to demand an increase in salaries and political reforms.

But the demonstrators have emphasised their loyalty to the ruler with placards declaring: "We are always loyal to you, Sultan Qaboos."

The rally was the second of its kind in the sultanate in the past month, after about 200 demonstrators hit the streets on Jan. 17 in protest against rising prices and corruption in the country of just under two million people.

In Egypt, a judicial committee formed to draft changes to the country's constitution proposed curbing the length of the president's term to four years and imposing a two-term limit on a leader.

The current presidential term is six years without any limit on the number of terms.

President Hosni Mubarak was serving in his fifth, six-year term when he was toppled by a mass uprising

The constitutional amendments are to be put to a national referendum ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has promised to hold within six months.

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