DUBAI (AFP) - Bahrain on Tuesday banned all protests and gatherings to ensure “security is maintained”, after a spate of clashes between Shia-led demonstrators and security forces in the Sunni-ruled country.

The Gulf state has been shaken by unrest since its forces in March last year crushed a month of popular protests led by members of its Shia majority demanding greater rights and an end to what they said was discrimination against them by the Sunni royal family.

The crackdown, which drew strong criticism from international rights groups, was followed by a three-month state of emergency declared by King Hamad during which protests were also banned.

In a statement carried by the official BNA news agency, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said the latest ban was aimed at safeguarding “civil peace”.

Sheikh Rashid stressed opposition protests led by the Shia movement Al-Wefaq had been marred by “acts of sabotage” and that the demonstrators had threatened national security by calling “for the overthrow of the government”.

“It was decided to stop all rallies and gatherings (to ensure)... security is maintained,” the ministry statement said.

It warned that “any illegal rally or gathering would be tackled through legal actions against those calling for it and participants.”

The Bahraini authorities had rejected an Al-Wefaq request for a rally on Sunday evening at Akar, a village near the capital Manama where a bomb fatally wounded a policeman on October 18.

The opposition movement then organised a demonstration, in agreement with the authorities, and when people took to the streets they chanted “Down with Hamad,” in reference to the Bahraini king.

And Sheikh Rashid said violations had been cited at protests organised by groups led by Al-Wefaq “which are considered as a continuation of outlawed actions committed in February and March last year.”

Last week, police clashed with protesters at villages outside Manama, using buckshot to disperse them after being attacked with Molotov cocktails and iron rods.

The International Federation for Human Rights says 80 people have died since the start of the Arab Spring-inspired uprising on February 14, 2011.

The government says more than 1,500 policemen have also been wounded in Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet and strategically situated across the Gulf from Shiite Iran.

Despite the Saudi-backed crackdown in March last year, sporadic protests continue to this day in the Gulf archipelago’s mainly Shia neighbourhoods, often spiralling into violent clashes with police.