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Bahrain says will hold dialogue to end crisis soon

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI (Reuters) - An adviser to Bahrain's King Hamad said the Gulf Arab state would hold a "comprehensive dialogue" soon to end a year-long political crisis but the opposition said it was unaware of any plans.

The comments by Nabeel Al-Hamer, the king's media advisor, were published by the state news agency late on Friday, after a prominent Shi'ite cleric led the biggest pro-democracy demonstration since a wave of protests erupted a year ago.

"Al-Hamer said there would soon be a comprehensive dialogue including all elements of Bahraini society and affirmed that everyone wants to end the crisis the country is in," BNA said.

However, a senior figure from the leading Shi'ite opposition party Wefaq said the group was not aware any new talks were planned. "We haven't heard officially from them yet," said Abduljalil Khalil.

In an incident that may complicate efforts to find a compromise, a 22-year-old Shi'ite man, Fadhel Mirza, died on Friday after being struck by a tear gas canister during clashes with police, the opposition Wefaq party said on Saturday.

After his funeral on Saturday, riot police fired tear gas to clear protesters, a Reuters witness said. Youths responded by throwing petrol bombs in clashes lasting over an hour.

Wefaq walked out of a national dialogue last July saying it was a sham. Shi'ites form the majority of Bahrain's native population but complain of political marginalization by the Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family. The government denies this.

The previous dialogue, which approved giving the elected parliament some more powers of oversight over ministers and budgets, followed a wave of pro-democracy street protests.

Bahrain's response was to impose martial law and invite Saudi and United Arab Emirates troops to help crush what it said was an uprising fomented by Shi'ite power Iran, a charge both Iran and the opposition denied.

The United States, a powerful ally, has called on the government to talk to Wefaq and other groups. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Manama.

PRESSURE FOR REFORM

The country's legal opposition parties say they want electoral reform and full legislative powers for the elected parliament and elected government - changes that worry Bahrain's powerful Sunni neighbor Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Royal court minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed met with figures from Wefaq and separately with other opposition parties in January and February to sound them out about possible negotiations. But youth activists and dissident political groups opposed to the monarchy do not want Wefaq to enter into talks.

Activists at Friday's march outside Manama which drew an estimated 100,000 people carried banners saying "No dialogue with killers".

They say at least 27 people have died due to heavy policing since martial law ended in June, many from the effects of tear gas. The government has queried the causes of death and whether they can rightly be attributed to the political crisis.

Clashes occur on a daily basis between riot police and youths in Shi'ite districts. The government describes the youths, who throw petrol bombs at police, as vandals and says Wefaq should do more to reign them in.

Pro-government Sunni groups, who accuse the opposition of loyalty to Iran, have called on the government not to enter into talks. Shi'ites say talk of Iranian links is a familiar charge with no basis that shows a misunderstanding of Shi'ism.

(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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