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19 May, 2017 05:16

‘You might get shot any time’: Saudi forces raid Shia town as Riyadh welcomes Trump

The Saudi town of Awamiyah with historically Shia population has been effectively besieged by the government forces for over a week following deadly clashes, with roadblocks blocking exits from the city and bulldozers razing homes, local eyewitnesses told RT.

While the visit of Donald Trump on Saturday to Saudi Arabia, which would be his first foreign visit as the 45th US president, gripped the attention of the international media, little has been reported about the plight of civilians in Awamiyah, a town in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

Some 25,000 residents of the town, most of them representing the country’s Shia minority, have been living in constant fear of being arrested, assaulted or killed since government troops raided the town nine days ago in what they claimed was an anti-terrorist operation, a local resident who asked not to be named told RT.

A 2-year-old boy and a Pakistani national were killed, and at least 14 people, including four policemen, were injured as a result of the raid in Awamiyah’s Almosara neighborhood, the Saudi Interior Ministry said in a statement last Friday. The authorities claimed that clashes erupted after unidentified “terrorists” fired at workers contracted by a company implementing a controversial renovation project in Awamiyah. The perpetrators also allegedly used explosives to knock the construction equipment out of operation. As the Saudi security forces tried to disarm the “terrorists,” they allegedly began firing randomly at the servicemen and passersby, which led to the casualties among civilians, according to the ministry.

The incident led to the neighborhood being effectively cut off from the rest of the region, with roadblocks placed on all the roads leading from the town and checkpoints set up.

In the meantime, social media have been inundated with footages of bulldozers and armed vehicles on the streets full of debris from partially demolished buildings with gaping holes in the walls and dangling wires. Some of the videos show cars being set alight with no fire engines containing the fire. Charred carcasses of vehicles could be seen in the aftermath. There have been reports that government forces are not allowing anybody to leave or enter the city while it is under siege. Subject to the restrictions are reportedly also ambulances and fire engines, and even garbage trucks, with people on some of the footage picking up litter scattered on the ground. 

RT cannot independently verify the videos as it is impossible to access the site. Moreover, most locals refuse to openly speak to foreign media, fearing repercussions.

“You might get arrested any time, get shot or killed directly, which has already happened. Some people got shot in that area,” a local resident, who asked for his name not to be revealed, told RT by phone.

“All the entrances to Awamiyah are closed with checkpoints. Sometimes it is closed completely. You cannot enter or exit Awamiyah,” the man said, noting that the clashes in the city have been ongoing “almost all… night and day.”

He added that most of the shops in the town have been shut down, as people are too frightened to leave their homes.

 As for the reasons for the reported crackdown, the eyewitness said there could be several possible explanations. One of them is the highly disputed renovation plan, enforced by the Saudi authorities in Almosara despite protests by the locals and calls by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to “halt the forced evections and demolition” in the 400-year-old neighborhood.

“People disagree. However, they cannot do anything right now. They are frightened all the time, they might get arrested or killed in the middle of the street,” the local resident said, adding that he doubts the renovation plans exist at all.

“We did not see any projects, real projects, we only hear about them. We are afraid that these are only claims. What we see right now are just the claims without evidence,” he said, adding that locals “don’t know the real reason” behind the government’s crusade against the town.

He believes, however, that the ultimate goal of the Saudi authorities is to silence dissent, with which Awamiyah has been associated since 2011.

“I believe that Saudi government wants to teach their people, and especially, Al-Qatif citizens, that their demands and human rights will not be implemented by protest. All those protests and demands will be faced with arresting and raids.”

READ MORE: US to sign major oil deals with Saudi Arabia during Trump visit

Awamiyah is the native town of influential Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was also Imam in a mosque there. Nimr was controversially executed in January 2016 after Riyadh charged him with terrorism. He is considered to be one of the leaders behind the 2011 protest movement and a vocal critic of the Saudi government’s treatment of Shiite minority. Nimr’s death sparked worldwide protests last year.

According to the latest data from the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, three people died and over 25 have been injured in the course of the Saudi government’s raids in Awamiyah since May 10. Hundreds of families were evicted from their homes, 10 homes were burned down and over 50 cars have been damaged.

RT has sent requests to several human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, UNESCO, OHCHR, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), and the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights to comment on the situation in Awamiyah.

So far, UNESCO has responded they are looking into RT’s report.