SAKHIR, Bahrain — Bahrain's crown prince says there will be "a time and a place" for him to participate in the slow-moving political dialogue in the divided Gulf nation but not yet.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa spoke Saturday as he toured the Bahrain International Circuit on the eve of the Bahrain Grand Prix. The crown prince says he is "hopeful" about the talks between the government and opposition forces in the divided Gulf nation but admitted the slow pace has been a concern.
"I wish they were going faster," the crown prince said. "But I'm hopeful. They are happening. That is the important thing. All sides get a chance to air their grievances and that is very key."
Last month, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appointed his heir to an additional role overseeing government affairs in an apparent gesture to opposition groups that have led more than two years of protests in a country which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. The crown prince is seen as more receptive to political compromises than others in Bahrain's ruling family, which has waged withering crackdowns on protesters, mainly Shiites calling for a greater political voice.
The largest Shiite political group Al Wifaq welcomed the move but has since demanded that a member of the ruling family directly participate in the talks.
"There is a serious need to involve the ruling family with the dialogue process in a serious way," Al Wifaq spokesman Abdul Jalil Khalil told The Associated Press. "This will be one of the first steps to improve the conditions of the dialogue, prepare the atmosphere and build the bridges of trust that also can be done by releasing political prisoners, stopping the intimidation of media."
The crown prince said a "framework" needs to be in place for the talks before he would consider joining.
"If I attend talks and (they) fail as it did in 2011, the costs are extremely high," the crown prince said. "I can't speak for different political groups or different political views that are present at the table. So there is a time and a place for me to step in. It is not yet there."
More than 60 people have been killed in the Arab Spring-inspired unrest, but some activists place the death toll higher. Opposition protesters stepped up their campaign for change ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, with some demanding the race be cancelled until their demands for political reforms are addressed.
Sporadic protests were reported around the capital, Manama, on Saturday, with protesters lighting fires and riot police firing tear gas and bird shot. Two Asians were also injured by firebombs being thrown at police patrols, the Ministry of Interior tweeted.
The crown prince dismissed allegations by rights groups that the race is used by the Sunni-led government to gloss over problems with its majority Shiite population. The race was canceled in 2011 due to the Arab Spring-inspired uprising and was overshadowed last year by massive protests outside the circuit – including a firebomb that briefly delayed a Force India car and prompted the team to pull out of the second practice.
"We've never used this race to say that everything is fine," the crown prince said. "We recognize there are issues in the country but they are to be solved through a political process which is well under way. I can name at least four other grand prix venues which have political problems but (they) don't seem to attract that kind of attention."
Associated Press Writer Reem Khalifa contributed to this report from Manama, Bahrain.
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