DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Bahrain police raided a town Tuesday that is home to a prominent Shiite cleric facing possible deportation, arresting 286 people in an assault in which officers fired tear gas and shotguns at protesters. At least five demonstrators were killed and others wounded.
The Interior Ministry said the operation targeting Diraz, 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 armored 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 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 gasoline bombs.
“Forces were able to remove a series of illegal road blocks and barricades,” the ministry said in a statement. “Police remain deployed in the area to ensure the safety of people.”
Amnesty International later said Qassim 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 Sunday court decision giving 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 Qassim’s hometown of Diraz for months, tightly controlling access. He could be deported at any time after authorities stripped him of his citizenship last June over accusations that he fueled 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 U.S. 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.
Since then, Bahrain has seen low-level unrest. But a yearlong government crackdown on dissent has raised the stakes, with local Shiite militant groups claiming some attacks. Bahrain long has accused Iran of aiding militants, something the Shiite power denies.
Meanwhile, activists have been imprisoned or forced into exile. Independent news gathering 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 with U.S. President Donald Trump during a Sunday summit in Saudi Arabia. Already, Trump’s administration had approved a multibillion-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,” Trump said Sunday.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted Tuesday that the raid showed the “first concrete result of POTUS cozying up to despots in Riyadh.” The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah warned that any harm to Qassim, “will open the doors for unpredictable outcome and dangers.”
Activists and rights group also warned 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.
Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap . His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz .