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Bahrain - Apr 20, 2012 - 07:51

Last modified: 20 Apr 2012 04:51

Formula One cars take to the track in Bahrain today with the government hoping a successful Grand Prix will draw a line under more than a year of Arab Spring protests and activists promising to mark the motor race with "days of rage". 

On the eve of the first practice session, police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators on Thursday in the kind of clashes that have built up in the week leading to Sunday's round of the World Championship. 

Bahrain has been in turmoil since a democracy movement erupted last year following uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Protests were initially crushed with the loss of dozens of lives, but youths still clash daily with riot police in Shia Muslim districts and thousands take part in opposition rallies. 

Two members of the British-based Force India team asked to go home after seeing burning of petrol bombs in what the
government described as an isolated incident

"A number of rioters and vandals had been arrested for taking part in illegal rallies and gatherings, blocking roads and endangering people's lives by attacking them with petrol bombs, iron rods and stones," the Information Affairs Authority said in a statement, citing Major General Tariq al-Hassan.
However, activists accused the kingdom's rulers of using the motor race to improve their international image. 
"Formula One in Bahrain has been taken as PR for the ruling elite, the repressive dictators who are ruling the country," activist Nabeel Rajab told a news conference.
Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifa family hopes the race will offer an opportunity to tell the world that life is returning to normal. 

Large sums of money are stake this weekend. Last year, Bahrain paid a "hosting fee" of $40m despite cancelling the race. The Grand Prix drew 100,000 visitors to the nation of just 1.3 million and generated half a billion dollars in spending when it was last held two years ago. 

[Source: Reuters]

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Anti-Formula One graffiti in the Bahraini village of Barbar, west of Manama, which reads, "Boycott F1 in Bahrain, you will race on the blood of martyrs":