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Crowds had approached Pearl Square in Manama from different directions, creating a standoff with riot police who had moved in earlier to replace troops withdrawn on royal orders.
Suddenly police raced to their buses, which drove away mounting kerbs in their haste to escape.
The protesters, cheering and waving national flags, ran to the centre of the traffic circle, reoccupying it even before all the police had left. The crowd waved fleeing policemen through.
Troops in tanks and armoured vehicles earlier withdrew from the square, which they had taken over on Thursday after riot police staged a night-time attack on sleeping protesters who had camped out there, killing four people and wounding 231.
The crowds in Pearl Square soon swelled into the tens of thousands, celebrating a triumph for the mostly Shia protesters who took to the streets on Monday, inspired by popular revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
The authorities had been determined to prevent protesters from turning Pearl Square into a base like Cairo