Protesters have clashed with police in Bahrain as thousands of antigovernment demonstrators massed in the capital, Manama, demanding a halt to the Formula 1 race scheduled for April 22.
Masked youths hurled firebombs at police, who had stopped them from marching to a main highway in an effort to return to a traffic roundabout that was a gathering point during last year's protests.
Bahrain has been in political turmoil since a violent government crackdown on a pro-democracy movement last year following the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The protests were led by Bahrain's majority Shi'a, who demanded that the ruling Sunni royal family improve human rights and make political reforms.
Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman on April 20 rejected calls to cancel the race, saying that would play into the hands of "extremists."
The protests came on the eve of the first practice session of the Grand Prix, which will begin on April 22.
'Days Of Rage'
Activists, who have promised three "days of rage," say the government has tightened its security grip over the past week.
Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, speaking on April 19 at a news conference in Manama, criticized the organizers of the race for going ahead with the event.
He called the race a public-relations campaign by the government to repair its international image after its deadly crackdown on Shi'ite protesters last year, which left 35 people dead, including five police officers.
"We are not against Formula 1 because we are against Formula 1 -- every part of our nation likes to enjoy this sport," Rajab said. "But we are against awarding dictators. Formula 1 in Bahrain has been taken as PR for the ruling elite, the repressive dictators who are ruling the country."
Activists say security forces have surrounded Shi'ite Muslim neighborhoods in an attempt to stop them from gathering in the capital as the country becomes the center of international media attention.
Rights activists say around 95 protest organizers have been arrested in night raids in the past week and 54 people wounded in clashes. Police have declined to give figures on arrests and injuries.
Labeled As 'Vandals'
On April 18, members of one of the race teams, Force India, were forced to flee after firebombs were thrown near their car on their way back from the Bahrain International Circuit track.
The four mechanics were caught in the middle of a clash between police and protesters. Two members of the team have since asked to return home.
The Bahraini government has labeled the demonstrators as "vandals," insisting that they are endangering lives by attacking people with petrol bombs, iron rods, and stones -- a charge the activists have rejected.
Mass demonstrations forced the cancellation of last year's Grand Prix in Bahrain. The 2012 race had been in doubt, but Formula 1's governing body, the FIA, decided to go ahead with the race at the last minute.
Despite antigovernment protests being initially crushed by authorities, activists say they still clash daily with riot police in Shi’ite districts.
Activists have put the number of protesters who have been killed in the government crackdown over the past year to 70 -- a figure rejected by the Bahraini government.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP