King Hamad of Bahrain has asked Crown Prince Salman to launch a national dialogue to resolve the kingdom’s growing political crisis. The prince has been authorised to talk to all parties.

The announcement came after more than 50 people were reported to have been wounded after the army fired on demonstrators attempting to march into the centre of the capital on Friday 18 February. Prince Salman had previously called on protesters to withdraw from the streets.

Many of the protesters have been calling for the overthrow of the royal family. But protest leaders are reported to have postponed an anti-government demonstration scheduled for Saturday 19 February.

Speaking on state TV on 18 February, Prince Salman expressed regret for “these painful days” and called for unity.

“We are at a crossroads,” he said. “Youths are going out on the street believing that they have no future in the country, while others are going out to express their love and loyalty. But this country is for you all, for the Shia and Sunnis.”

Pearl Square, which has become the rallying point for protesters, had been sealed off by the army to prevent further large-scale demonstrations after a violence at protests earlier in the week left three protesters dead. But the funeral procession of one of the protesters on Friday 18 February turned into another anti-government demonstration.

Bahrain’s most senior Shia cleric, Sheikh Issa Qassem, has described attacks on protesters as a “massacre” and said the government had shut the door to dialogue.

Western countries have urged Bahrain to show restraint in dealing with protesters and called for meaningful reform in the kingdom.