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As clashes between protesters and government security forces in Bahrain escalate, the Defense Department this week closed a base school and authorized voluntary departure from the tiny island nation for family members and nonessential civilian personnel stationed at Naval Support Activity Bahrain.

The continuing conflict between Shiite Muslim protesters — Bahrain’s majority ethnic group — and the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family ramped up this week with the arrival of 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia, brought in to help quell the uprising at the request of the country’s embattled rulers.

According to a release posted Monday on the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet website, families and Defense Department civilian employees stationed at NSA Bahrain can voluntarily depart the tiny island nation “due to the ongoing demonstrations and continued unrest.”

The announcement follows a State Department travel warning Sunday that authorized the departure of U.S. Embassy family members. It also recommended that Americans slated to visit Bahrain defer travel and that those already there “should consider departing.”

“Bahrain has experienced a breakdown in law and order in various areas of the country over the last few weeks,” according to the travel warning. “Demonstrations have degenerated into violent clashes between police and protesters on several occasions, resulting in injuries.”

“There have also been multiple reports of sectarian groups patrolling areas throughout Bahrain and establishing unofficial vehicle checkpoints,” it states. “Spontaneous demonstrations and violence can be expected throughout the country.”

Despite the continuing violence and the latest voluntary evacuation announcements, Navy officials on Wednesday played down the unrest, saying that life is continuing as normal for the 5,000 servicemembers and 700 family members who call Bahrain home.

U.S. Navy 5th Fleet spokesman Lt. Frederick Martin said he did not know how many people had opted for the voluntary evacuation because the program was just getting under way.

“This is not a major exodus,” Martin said. “This is totally voluntary, a very calm, controlled and deliberate voluntary departure. Evacuation really is a bad term for it.”

Those opting to leave can go to a stateside destination of their choice, he said.

The U.S. military community mostly lives off-base, Martin said, and while there are more Americans near the base, “we are spread out throughout a good portion of the city and the country.”

He said the U.S. school there closed this week due to issues involved in getting students to school. “Demonstrations made significant traffic problems,” he said. “It was difficult to get students to the school. We didn’t want a whole bunch of high-schoolers getting stuck somewhere.”

According to a posting on its website, the American Bahrain School will reopen Sunday.

While demonstrations have not been directed toward Westerners, Americans are urged to remain alert, according to the U.S. Embassy advisory.

Bahraini security forces cracked down on protester strongholds at the Pearl Roundabout — the center of the monthlong protests — and in the financial district in the capital of Manama, a day after the king declared emergency law, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. NSA Bahrain abuts the capital, and is just a few miles from the center of clashes at the Pearl roundabout.

The newspaper reported that witnesses said at least two protesters were killed and that state television reported two policemen died when they were hit by a vehicle after protesters were driven out of the square.

Despite the unrest, people continue to commute home in the evenings, Martin said, and are given advice to limit their travel and avoid the protest areas.

Those with concerns are urged to talk to their chain of command, he said.

Geoffz@estripes.osd.mil

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