MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) -- Bahrain's security forces fired tear gas and pellets at anti-government protesters in the Gulf kingdom on Friday after a prominent Shiite cleric vowed that their demands for the Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip on power will not be silenced by "brutal force." One person died, activists said.
Bahrain's government, meanwhile, brushed aside suggestions for an international investigation into the deaths of protesters during the month of unrest or allegations that police attacked wounded protesters at a hospital.
Defying a ban on public gatherings, thousands of people poured out of Muslim prayer services Friday at mosques in Shiite towns and demonstrated against the ruling Sunni dynasty, which has declared a three-month period of emergency rule and invited in a Saudi-led military force to help quell the unrest.
Bahrain is the Gulf country worst-hit by the wave of political protest sweeping the Arab world. The stability of the island kingdom is of particular concern to the United States, which bases naval forces in the country as a key counterweight to Iran's growing influence in the region. Washington has been pushing its ally to answer some of the protesters' reform demands.
In Friday's confrontations, riot police, backed by soldiers, released thick clouds of tear gas to disperse protesters in the Shiite villages of Malakiya, Karzakan and several others west of the capital. There were also protests in villages on the island of Sitra, the center of Bahrain's oil industry.
Bahrain's opposition leaders and human rights activists said one man died during Friday's unrest and at least 50 people were injured. Isa Mohammed, a 71-year-old cancer patient, suffocated as a result of tear gas that wafted into his home in Maameer, on Sitra island, said Abdul Jalil Khalil, a senior member of the Wefaq opposition bloc.
The Interior Ministry said, however, that a forensic examination concluded he died of natural causes and there was no evidence he suffocated from tear gas.
Most of the injuries were from pellets of bird shot, said Khalil and activists with the Bahrain Human Rights Center who were at the protest in Maameer.
Bahrain's Shiite majority, which has agitated for equal rights for years, launched a much larger protest movement after drawing inspiration from uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that brought down autocratic rulers there. They are demanding greater political freedoms and a say in the running of the country.
Throughout the month of unrest, at least 20 people have been killed, including two policemen.
In Geneva, Bahrain's acting health minister, Fatima al-Balooshi, rejected the idea of an independent international investigation into the deaths of protesters and allegations that wounded protesters were abused at the country's main hospital.
Al-Balooshi said Bahrain is conducting its own investigation into the violence and denied claims by protesters that some activists who were injured in the government crackdown were questioned and beaten by police while recovering in the state-run Salmaniya Medical Complex.
"This did not happen," she said. "The demonstrators, they occupied the hospital. They were beating up the patients."
On Wednesday, a Bahraini government spokeswoman said security forces took control of the hospital because it has been used as a "coordination center" by protesters. She also said doctors used the hospital to spread "malicious propaganda."
At least four doctors from Salmaniya have been detained since emergency rule was declared.
At a prayer sermon in Duraz, an opposition stronghold northwest of the capital, Manama, Sheik Isa Qassim said Bahrain's Shiite majority will continue demanding rights and dignity despite the rulers' resolve to crush the uprising.
"The brutal force and abusive language being deployed against us will never destroy our will and desire to achieve our rights and dignity," Qassim said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)