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‘Almost like war zone’: Saudi ‘renovation’ of Shiite town decried as attempt to drive residents out

The claimed ‘renovation’ of a Shiite town in Saudi Arabia is an attempt by the Sunni government to drive the locals out, the Awamiya residents told RT, adding that troops fire upon people in streets as homes are being bulldozed.

The Saudi operation in Awamiya has been underway during the last three months, but “it has been very bad for the last 14 days,” one of the residents told RT on the phone. The person asked to remain unanimous and for his voiced to be modified due to fear of retaliation from the government. 

“The city has been empty, completely empty. No movement on the streets, nobody's out because soldiers were actually around the city, just shooting everybody who's in the streets,” he said.

“If you hear the sounds of shootings outside – it's almost like a war zone. It's not actually far from what's happening in Iraq and Syria,” the witness to the Saudi operation added. 

“Awamiya is under fire now,” another resident said. “Random shooting is everywhere, shelling, but I think it's getting worse and worse. They started to use tanks against civilians.”

The third witness told RT that the locals aren’t buying into Saudi claims of renovating the town. 

“The renovation is just the facade or the cover that the government is using to evacuate the area, to make the original people leave. The government wants to control the area, and the only way the government can control the area is demolish it completely and rebuild it according to the government standards,” he said.

The small town of Awamiya, located in predominantly Shiite-populated Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, has been the scene of violent skirmishes between the kingdom’s security forces and local insurgents for years. Since May, the authorities have been trying to bulldoze the old quarter of the town, claiming that Shiite militants use its curved, narrow streets for cover. 

Following anti-government unrest in the town of just 30,000 people, the Saudi military has placed most of Awamiya under siege. Fighting intensified earlier in August when Riyadh deployed Special Forces to clear the old quarter, also known as Almosara.

The authorities maintained that skirmishes erupted after unidentified “terrorists” fired at workers contracted by a development company running a controversial renovation project in Awamiyah. The perpetrators also allegedly used explosives to knock the construction equipment out of operation.

Despite the ongoing military operation in Awamiyah, the authorities keep insisting the demolition has nothing to do with fighting. The bulldozers, they say, are preparing the area for the construction of shopping centers, office high-rises, greenspaces and fountains in place of Almosara neighborhood. 

“We informed everyone in the community there would be development stages for several areas in Qatif, starting with [Almosara],” Esam Abdullatef Almulla, the region's acting mayor, told Reuters on Wednesday. 

However, news coming from the troubled, depressed town suggests the situation may be worlds apart from the official government statements. Earlier, the Saudi authorities introduced power cuts on residents to force them out of the town, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on housing, Leilani Farha. 

There are also signs the Saudi forces’ offensive on Awamiyah takes the shape of sectarian strife. Some commandos posed standing inside a local mosque on a portrait of influential Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in January 2016 after Riyadh charged him with terrorism. The execution triggered massive outrage across the Shiite community across the world. 

Awamiyah is the native town of Al-Nimr, who was also imam at the local mosque. The cleric 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.

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.

“The Saudi attack on Awamiyah is the largest and longest military campaign inside the country since the establishment of Saudi Arabia in 1932,” Ali al-Ahmad, head of the Gulf Institute for Human Rights, commented on RT, adding it is unlikely if the international community could make the difference.

READ MORE: Ottawa probes claims Saudi Arabia used Canadian-made weapons against own citizens

“I don’t really put too much stake on the United States, or Canada or the UK – all these countries have provided training, weaponry and assistance to the Saudi forces … in fact they try to support the monarchy while maintaining the appearance of civility and democracy,” he said.

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