By Alexander Dziadosz
MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahraini protesters clashed with police into Saturday's early hours a day ahead of a Formula One race that the island kingdom's opposition hopes will draw attention to its campaign for democracy.
Young men blocked roads, burned tires and threw rocks at security forces who fired teargas in several villages around the capital Manama on Friday night, human rights activists and witnesses said.
Such skirmishes have occurred almost nightly in Bahrain for the last two years, and the opposition has called for more protests in the run-up to the Grand Prix, which many in the Shi'ite-majority country accuse the Sunni-led government of using to disguise political dysfunction and human rights abuses.
On Saturday morning, much of Manama and the surrounding area appeared quiet, with police stationed along major highways.
The government denies it carries out human rights abuses and says any reports of wrongdoing by its security forces are investigated.
Bahrain's Information Minister Samira Rajab said the overnight clashes were "the normal sort" and opposition reports about them sought to inflate their significance.
"They are trying to exaggerate for the media before the Formula One race. They are working very hard to show a bad image of Bahrain," she told Reuters.
Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said he believed protests and clashes broke out in nearly 20 villages on Friday evening and night.
In several, such as Karranah and Abu Saiba, protesters scuffled with security forces, who fired teargas and bird shot to disperse them, he said.
"The riot police came and attacked them with teargas and shotguns and rubber bullets," Muhafda said. He estimated about eight protesters were injured, one with bird shot and another with a teargas canister.
A Reuters witness said clashes also broke out along the Budaiya highway, where the Shi'ite-led opposition staged a rally on Friday afternoon that drew thousands of protesters demanding democratic reforms.
Young men threw stones and blocked the roads with burning tires, the witness said. The smell of teargas hung in the air.
The tiny nation - only about a quarter the size of Luxembourg - has been hit by unrest since pro-democracy protests started in February 2011. The Formula One race was canceled that year amid the violence.
A government-commissioned report said 35 people died during the uprising. The opposition puts the death toll much higher.
Bahrain pays an estimated $40 million a year to host the Formula One race, which Justice Minister Khalid al-Khalifa said last week should not be "politicized."
Throughout the unrest, the United States has voiced support for its ally, which hosts its navy's Fifth Fleet and which it sees as a key ally in the regional struggle between Sunni power Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran.
The Bahraini government denies it discriminates against Shi'ites or abuses detainees and says it arrests suspects in accordance with the rule of law.
(Writing by Alexander Dziadosz, Editing by WIlliam Maclean and Andrew Heavens)