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MANAMA (Reuters) - At least 5,000 demonstrators gathered close to Manama, the capital of Bahrain, on Friday as a three-day Grand Prix got underway in a country that has been convulsed by more than a year of pro-democracy protests.
The protesters - from the majority Shi'ite community - assembled in the Budaiya area near Manama. They say they feel sidelined by a Sunni-controlled ruling elite, and have made it clear they want to use the world's focus on the glitzy Formula One event to air their grievances.
Hundreds of demonstrators broke away from Friday's march and made their way towards the main highway in the direction of Pearl Roundabout, the initial focus of the protest movement when the uprising first began in February 2011.
Clashes ensued when police stopped them.
"They are trying to go to Pearl Square, police are firing tear gas and sound bombs. I can see hundreds, they are still fighting," said activist Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda by telephone.
Protesters said they felt the Grand Prix was ill-timed.
"I love cars but the situation in Bahrain doesn't allow for Formula One to take place now. We are here to reject formula One, we don't want it to take place in Bahrain," said Hassan Mohammed Hassan, who was wearing a Ferrari t-shirt.
The government hopes the race will show the world Bahrain is getting back to normal after last year's Grand Prix was cancelled due to street unrest and has said it does not intend to cancel the race at this late stage.
Violent, spontaneous protests by younger Bahrainis carrying petrol bombs have caused the authorities particular concern. They have been the main instigator of clashes with police in Shi'ite villages surrounding the capital on a nightly basis.
"The government is addressing some issues, but not the key issues. We are trying to send a message that there are abuses of rights in Bahrain. At the same time, the government, by hosting Formula One, is trying to show that everything is normal," said Khalas, a man in his twenties who declined to give his full name.
Reporting by Warda Al-Jawahiry; Writing by Reed Stevenson; Editing by Andrew Osborn