Bahrain opposition says to boycott dialogue for 2 weeks

Bahrain's opposition said Wednesday it will boycott the national dialogue for two weeks after a crackdown by authorities that has seen "hundreds of citizens" arrested and home of a prominent Shiite cleric raided.

The opposition entered into a dialogue with the government in February which aims at resolving the political deadlock in the Shiite-majority kingdom, but the talks have been dogged by disagreement between the two sides.

The dialogue is being held twice a week after it started on February 10.

"Al-Wefaq, in collaboration with other opposition forces, has decided to suspend its participation in the national dialogue preparatory sessions for two weeks," the Shiite opposition bloc said.

Al-Wefaq said the boycott comes after the security situation escalated with arrests of "hundreds of citizens" and raiding of homes including that of "national idol Ayatollah Issa Qassem".

It said the move was also a protest against "unfair verdicts against prisoners of conscience".

On Friday, Al-Wefaq accused government troops of raiding the home of Qassem, the country's leading Shiite cleric, and warned that authorities will bear responsibility for this "dangerous" act.

Qassem was not at home during the raid that came amid clashes between young demonstrators and security forces as police hunted down protesters in the Shiite village of Diraz.

On Monday, a Bahraini court sentenced nine Shiites to jail terms ranging between 10 and 15 years after convicting them of forming a "terrorist" group.

Scores of Shiites have faced jail terms over accusations of involvement in violence since protests against the regime of the ruling Al-Khalifa Sunni dynasty erupted in 2011.

Despite a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces in mid-March 2011, supported by Saudi-led Gulf troops, protesters were shortly back on the streets, mainly in Shiite villages, where they frequently clash with police.

At least 80 people have been killed in Bahrain since February 2011, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.

Strategically located just across the Gulf from Iran, Bahrain is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and is also a major offshore financial and services centre for its Arab neighbours in the oil-rich Gulf.