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MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain's crown prince, a driving force behind reconciliation talks between government and opposition, said on Saturday he was hopeful that the dialogue could resolve a two-year-old political crisis.
Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa, who rarely speaks to reporters, said of the talks: "They're happening - that's the important thing. And all sides get a chance to air their grievances, and that's very key."
The tiny but strategically vital Gulf Arab kingdom, a close U.S. ally, has been hit by street violence and demonstrations since pro-democracy protests broke out in February 2011.
In February this year, the Sunni Muslim-led government and mainly Shi'ite Muslim opposition resumed an effort to negotiate an end to the deadlock.
But the "National Dialogue" appears bogged down largely in procedural issues, while police and protesters clash almost nightly in several of the island's Shi'ite villages.
Salman, the first deputy prime minister, told reporters at the Sakhir racing circuit that he would not attend the talks yet because they still needed a framework and because the costs would be "extremely high" if he attended and the talks failed.
"There is a time and a place for me to step in. It is not yet there," he said, speaking a day before a Formula One car race that activists accuse the government of using to hide human rights abuses and political problems.
The crown prince disputed this characterisation of the Grand Prix, saying holding it helped Bahrain by keeping it connected to the outside world.
"We've never used this race to say that everything's fine. We recognise there are issues in the country, but they are to be solved through a political process, which is well under way," he said.
"I think keeping Bahrain connected to the international community is a very important thing for us, because it stops people looking inwards and allows us to look outwards."
(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by William Maclean and Stephen Powell)