By Alan Baldwin
MANAMA (Reuters) - Cancelling Sunday's Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix would only "empower extremists", the country's Crown Prince told reporters on Friday as police in the small Gulf state battled to put down pro-democracy protests.
Prince Salman did not respond directly to questions about whether he could guarantee the safety of teams, however, saying instead that he was able to guarantee that the protests were not directed against Formula One.
Standing alongside Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone at the Sakhir circuit, the Crown Prince made it clear to the assembled TV crews that calls from home and abroad for the race to be scrapped would fall on deaf ears.
"I think cancelling the race just empowers extremists," he declared, without specifying exactly who he had in mind.
"For those of us trying to navigate a way out of this political problem, having the race allows us to build bridges across communities, to get people working together. It allows us to celebrate our nation. It is an idea that is positive, not one that is divisive."
The Prince's statement came after two of the 12 Formula One teams said their staff had seen protesters and petrol bombs on their way back from the track to hotels in Manama, the capital.
The Britain-based Force India team missed Friday's second practice session for safety reasons to ensure staff could get back to their hotels safely before nightfall. Two shaken team employees have already left the country.
Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifa family, a Sunni Muslim dynasty ruling a majority Shi'ite population, is struggling to quell a wave of protests by Shi'ite youths unhappy about what they say is preferential treatment for Sunni Muslims in everything from housing to jobs.
The government hopes to use the Grand Prix to show that life in the small Gulf state is getting back to normal after pro-democracy activists launched an Arab Spring-inspired uprising last year.
The protests were initially crushed, but were not stamped out; demonstrations and clashes are frequent.
RATTLED BY VIOLENCE
F1 teams, who started their race preparations on Friday, have been rattled by the violence. Sauber said their mechanics had seen masked people with fire bombs on the highway on Thursday evening.
But Ecclestone played down the concerns in typical fashion, telling reporters earlier that Force India may have been targeted for a reason that had nothing to do with the race, suggesting that the media were enjoying the situation.
"It's a lot of nonsense. You guys love it. What we really need is an earthquake or something like that now so you can write about that," declared the 81-year-old billionaire.
He could not call off the race even if he wanted to, he added, because "it's nothing to do with us, the race. We have an agreement to be here, and we're here. The national sporting authority in this country can call the race off."
Almost lost from view among a crush of photographers and reporters, Ecclestone said the decision to go ahead had "given the protesters an incredible platform for all you guys to talk to them."
The Crown Prince said it was important that the race, the first in Bahrain since 2010 after last year's was cancelled following a bloody crackdown on the uprising, went ahead.
Asked about calls from British politicians for the race to be scrapped, he said the appeals did not reflect British public opinion as a whole.
"I think this race should continue because it is indeed a very big event for this country, it is important economically, socially. Political parties from across the whole spectrum, both conservative and opposition, have welcomed the race," he said.
Pro-democracy activists have said they plan to hold a series of 'days of rage' to coincide with the Grand Prix.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)