MANAMA - Voting began Saturday in Bahrain's first legislative elections since a failed pro-democracy uprising in 2011, with the opposition boycotting the polls in the tiny Gulf monarchy.
Bahrain, a key US ally, remains divided nearly four years after security forces in the Sunni-ruled kingdom quelled Arab Spring-inspired protests led by majority Shiites.
Al-Wefaq, the main opposition group, warned on the eve of the vote that failure by the kingdom's rulers to ease their "monopoly" on power could trigger a surge in violence.
Clashes between young demonstrators and security forces erupted in Shiite villages outside the capital Manama ahead of the polls, according to witnesses.
The Gulf state's electorate of almost 350,000 is being called to choose 40 deputies. Most the 266 candidates are Sunnis in a vote denounced by critics as a "farce".
Polling stations opened at 8:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) and are due to close at 8:00 p.m. Municipal elections are being held at the same time.
In Riffa, a Sunni-dominated district south of Manama, dozens of people, mostly men dressed in traditional long white attire, lined up ahead of the start of voting.
"This election will help the development of the country under the leadership of the king," said Naima El-Heddi, a civil servant in his 30s.
The opposition boycott means voter turnout will be a key marker of the validity of the vote.
Information Minister Samira Rajab stressed ahead of the polls that the government would not tolerate "chaos, unrest and foreign meddling" - a reference to Shiite Iran.
On the eve of elections, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of the Shiite village of Diraz in support of the boycott, with police firing tear gas to disperse them.
"Boycott! Boycott!" they chanted.
In other villages AFP reporters saw barricades and burnt rubbish bins, as well as trees and concrete blocks that authorities said were aimed at preventing people going to vote.
Shiite demonstrators frequently clash with security forces in villages outside the capital, and hundreds have been arrested and tried since the month-long uprising in early 2011, which was crushed by the authorities.
Al-Wefaq withdraw its 18 lawmakers after a violent crackdown on demonstrators by security forces.