Bahraini security forces have intensified their crackdown on the opposition by removing an estimated 20 to 80 wounded protesters from Salmaniya Medical Complex, the country's largest and best equipped hospital, said a human rights group and doctors in contact with hospital staff.
The raid on the hospital and relocation of patients to undisclosed locations, if verified, would be an escalation of the state's harsh response to a largely peaceful protest movement whose persistence and size have shaken Bahrain's ruling Khalifa family.
Most of the patients said to have been removed were hurt Wednesday when military and police ejected protesters from a camp they had set up in the Pearl Square roundabout in Manama, the capital, and many have gunshot wounds.
Despite assurances from the royal family that the country is back to normal, Salmaniya hospital provides stark evidence of the grim reality settling over Bahrain, a close ally of the United States and home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Armored vehicles and soldiers in ski masks ring the medical complex, turning away most visitors, including journalists.
Bahrain's health minister resigned after the military's incursion into the hospital. Several physicians have been arrested and others face regular harassment, doctors said. Many in the country's majority Shiite Muslim population, which has been at the forefront of the demonstrations against the Sunni royal family, refuse to go to Salmaniya for fear of arrest, doctors said.
"It's really weird why they are taking over the hospital," said one physician, who declined to be named for safety reasons. "They don't want us to treat the people."
The government alleges that protesters had taken over Salmaniya in the days before the Pearl Square crackdown, and that security forces had won it back. Hospital staff members said protesters had come to Salmaniya to volunteer over the last few weeks, because of the large numbers of people getting hurt in demonstrations, but they did not interfere with the center's work.
Accounts vary regarding where the wounded allegedly were taken, either to a military hospital or the unfinished King Hamad University Hospital, said doctors and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, who are in touch with at least seven Salmaniya employees. Several staff members told the society they had seen the wounded being moved, while others said they spoke to relatives who came to Salmaniya only to find their loved ones gone.
An e-mail to the Information Ministry seeking comment was not answered.
Inspired by the political changes sweeping the Arab world, Bahrainis revived their on-again, off-again protest movement of the last 40 years seeking political reform, with the most radical groups calling for abolishing the monarchy. Although the United States sided with protesters in countries such as Egypt, it has taken a more equivocal stance with Bahrain.
And as the regime has moved to crush opponents, medical personnel and hospitals have become targets of security forces.
Ambulance workers have been beaten and fired upon when arriving to help the wounded in clashes between protesters and government forces. On Tuesday, police and military forces raided the mostly Shiite village of Sitra. In an account provided to the Youth Society group, a nurse identified as N.E. said troops opened fire on the local medical center as it took in the wounded.
After the assault on Pearl Square began Wednesday, the wounded were taken to smaller hospitals across Manama, which were ill-prepared to help. At several hospitals, the military took away the wounded, said one expatriate doctor who had spoken to staff and who like nearly all others declined to be named for security reasons. The glass front of the International Medical Center was shot out after protesters took refuge there.
Doctors at Salmaniya that day said ambulances were prohibited from leaving, and few vehicles with wounded were allowed in. Security forces surrounded the complex and fired tear gas, driving everyone indoors. Troops soon entered, keeping doctors from emergency patients and searching rooms for protesters. Outside, security forces systematically vandalized the cars of hospital staff.
The complex now is bordered with modest sedans, their tires uniformly slashed and windows smashed.
One physician said he had sent an emergency case to Salmaniya last week without difficulty. Another said an infant died Saturday because soldiers turned her family away Friday night. At least one protester, Jafar Mayouf, died Wednesday because he wasn't allowed inside Salmaniya, doctors said.
Staff at Salmaniya said soldiers check their cellphones for images or messages documenting the military takeover of the hospital. Female doctors and nurses, who once wore white uniforms to work, now dress in civilian clothes to get through the island kingdom's checkpoints.
"Our doctors say don't come," said Nader Dewani, a consulting physician at Salmaniya. "I know I can't go into the hospital. They might arrest me."