MANAMA, April 21, 2012 (AFP) - Bahrain's opposition reported Saturday the first death in protests timed for this weekend's controversial Grand Prix as rising fears prompted tighter security around the Formula One race circuit.
The body of Salah Abbas Habib, 36, was found in Shakhura village, where security forces overnight had "attacked peaceful protesters, brutally beating some of them with various tools and weapons," Bahrain's largest Shiite opposition bloc Al-Wefaq said.
The group charged that "security forces killed him one day before the final round of the F1 races hosted by Bahrain," without clarifying how the man had died.
In a statement on social networking website Twitter, the interior ministry confirmed that "the body of a deceased person was found in Shakhura today (Saturday). Police have begun an investigation."
One of his relatives, contacted by AFP, said "Salah was taking part in the protest in Shakhura Friday and was arrested by security forces while other protesters managed to flee."
"We knew nothing about him" after the protest "until we were told that his body was found on Saturday morning," the family member said on condition of anonymity.
Witnesses told AFP that security forces fired tear gas and sound bombs to disperse dozens of people who gathered at the area where Habib's body was found.
Late on Friday, protesters clashed with riot police in Bahrain when dozens took to the streets in several Shiite villages, witnesses said.
Security forces fired tear gas and sound bombs to disperse the demonstrators, some of whom responded by hurling petrol bombs and stones, the sources said, adding that the clashes were "violent."
Dozens of armoured vehicles were deployed Saturday on roads leading to the Sakhir circuit, where the FI race is going ahead despite calls by rights groups to cancel the event due to rising political tensions in the kingdom.
Security gates were set up and bags thoroughly searched at the entrances to the circuit.
Officials insisted the event was safe, although Force India team withdrew from Friday afternoon practice on safety ground, two days after four of its mechanics were caught up in traffic close to an exploding petrol bomb.
Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa on Friday said: "I think cancelling just empowers extremists."
"I think for those of us who are trying to navigate a way out of this political problem having the race allows us to build bridges across communities," he told a media briefing at Sakhir.
Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley, who said Wednesday's incident had "destabilised the emotional element of our team," insisted they however supported the Grand Prix and would make a full commitment to Saturday's qualifying and the race itself on Sunday.
Two of his team members opted to leave Bahrain on Thursday.McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said: "Clearly we race in an international sport all over the world and we've had security concerns and issues in a number of races. We take that very seriously. We're cautious and we try and take the right precautions."
The late Friday clashes had followed a massive afternoon demonstration in the Shiite suburb of Budaya, west of Manama.
Shiite-led protests have intensified in Bahrain, site of a month-long uprising that was crushed last year, since its Sunni rulers insisted on going ahead with the Grand Prix.
The February 14 Youth Movement has called on social networking sites for "three days of rage" to coincide with the race.
Bahrain's main opposition group, Al-Wefaq, had called for a week of daily protests during the event to focus media attention on their longstanding demands for reforms.
The head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, Mohammed Maskati, has said the protests were "a message to those taking part in the F1 race to bring their attention to human rights violations in Bahrain."
But for Red Bull's Christian Horner: "It's wrong for it (the race) to be used politically. We're here to race."