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Thursday 23 November 2017

Five killed as Bahrain police storm Shiite cleric's town

This image provided by an activist shows Bahraini security forces during the raid on Diraz (AP Photo)
This image provided by an activist shows Bahraini security forces during the raid on Diraz (AP Photo)

Five protesters were killed and 286 were arrested when Bahrain police raided a town that is home to a prominent Shiite cleric facing possible deportation.

Officers fired tear gas and shotguns at demonstrators during the assault in Diraz on Tuesday, and there were a number of injuries.

The Interior Ministry said the operation targeting the town, home to Sheikh Isa Qassim and a long-running sit-in supporting him, was to "maintain security and public order".

It called the area a "haven for wanted fugitives from justice".

Activists shared photographs and videos showing youths throwing stones and climbing on an armoured personnel carrier.

Gunfire could be heard in one video as white smoke from tear gas hung in the air. Another video showed a bulldozer smashing through the area that once hosted the sit-in.

Police arrested 286 people, including "terrorists and convicted felons" who hid inside of Sheikh Qassim's home, the Interior Ministry said.

It said 19 members of the island's security forces were wounded in the raid that saw protesters throw petrol bombs.

"Forces were able to remove a series of illegal road blocks and barricades," the ministry said. "Police remain deployed in the area to ensure the safety of people."

Amnesty International later said the sheikh was not arrested.

At least five protesters were killed, activists and police said. Activists shared images of other protesters suffering what appeared to be birdshot wounds.

The operation followed a court decision on Sunday giving Sheikh Qassim a year's suspended prison sentence and seizing assets belonging to him and his ministry. Two of his aides received similar sentences.

Police have besieged Diraz for months, tightly controlling access. The sheikh could be deported at any time after authorities stripped him of his citizenship last June over accusations that he fuelled extremism.

His supporters deny the allegations and called his trial politically motivated.

Shiites and others took part in 2011 Arab Spring protests for greater rights from the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain, home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet and an under-construction British naval base.

Bahrain put down the protests with the help of forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and s ince then, there has been low-level unrest.

But a year-long government crackdown on dissent has raised the stakes, with local Shiite militant groups claiming some attacks. Bahrain has long accused Iran of aiding militants, something the Shiite power denies.

Meanwhile, activists have been imprisoned or forced into exile. Independent newsgathering on the island also has grown more difficult, with the government refusing to accredit two Associated Press journalists and others .

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa met President Donald Trump during a summit in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

Mr Trump's administration has approved a multi-billion-dollar sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without the human rights conditions imposed by the State Department under President Barack Obama.

"Our countries have a wonderful relationship together but there has been a little strain but there won't be strain with this administration," Mr Trump said on Sunday.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Tuesday that the raid showed the "first concrete result of POTUS (Mr Trump) cozying up to despots in Riyadh".

The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah warned that any harm to Sheikh Qassim "will open the doors for unpredictable outcome and dangers".

Activists and rights groups warned Mr Trump's embrace of Bahrain only will fuel the crackdown.

"The timing of this operation - two days after King Hamad's convivial meeting with President Trump - can hardly be a coincidence," said Nicholas McGeehan, a senior Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch.

AP

Press Association

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