Five Killed, Hundreds Hurt After Protesters Shiites Clash With Bahraini Police

By Asa Fitch in Dubai and

Bahraini forces clashed with Shiite Muslim protesters, killing five people and wounding hundreds of others in a flare-up of a long-running confrontation between the Sunni monarchy and majority Shiite population, activists and Amnesty International said.

Tuesday’s clashes, in which Amnesty and local activists said forces fired tear gas and birdshot at protesters, took place near the home of Isa Qassim, the country’s top Shiite cleric. Shiite activists have held sit-ins since authorities stripped him of his citizenship last year, a move authorities said aimed to clamp down on those subordinate to foreign religious authorities.

Bahraini forces surrounded and raided Mr. Qassim’s house, but he wasn’t taken into custody, Amnesty said.

The clashes came two days after a court sentenced Mr. Qassim to a one-year suspended jail sentence on charges of money-laundering and raising funds without a license. Amnesty said these activities related to his collection of tithes to be distributed to the poor.

Bahrain’s ministry of interior on Tuesday evening said police forces carrying out a “targeted security operation” that morning in Diraz, the village on the northwestern coast where Mr. Qassim lives, came under attack with firebombs, metal rods, knives and axes.

They responded proportionately, it said, resulting in the death of five “outlaws” and in the injury of 18 policemen, according to a ministry statement.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa met Sunday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa met Sunday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: EVAN VUCCI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The ministry of interior said police has so far arrested 286 people, many of whom were hiding in Mr. Qassim’s house. They included some who had earlier escaped from a Bahraini prison and “terrorists and convicted felons.”

It didn’t say whether the cleric was among those arrested.

The clashes followed a Sunday meeting in Saudi Arabia between U.S. President Donald Trump and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, during Mr. Trump’s first trip abroad since taking office. Mr. Trump said during the meeting that there wouldn’t be any strain in the countries’ relationship on his watch.

Bahrain, a tiny island country off Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast, is an important U.S. ally in the Middle East. It hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the force that patrols shipping channels around the Arabian Peninsula.

Activists suggested that the meeting with Mr. Trump had emboldened Bahraini leaders to instigate the clashes.

“Trump gave them a green light,” said one activist in a nearby village, who asked not to be named for fear of being targeted. “They can do what they want and he won’t say anything against them.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif issued his own rebuke, tweeting that the deadly attack was the “first concrete result of POTUS cozying up to despots in Riyadh,” using an acronym for the U.S. president.

Iran, the region’s largest Shiite country and Saudi Arabia’s regional rival for power, supports political rights and an end to repression for Bahrain’s Shiites. Bahrain, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, alleges that Iran sends Bahraini dissidents weapons and fuels violence in the country, which Iran denies.

Tensions between the Bahrain’s monarchy and the restive Shiite population have been boiling over since 2011, when authorities put down Arab Spring demonstrations. Periodic unrest and clashes have continued despite attempts at political dialogue and reconciliation.

Tuesday’s clashes began early in the morning, when Bahraini forces surrounded Diraz with armored vehicles and personnel carriers.

Local mosques had called over their loudspeakers for citizens to move toward Mr. Qassim’s house and a peaceful protest began, Amnesty said. The clashes began about an hour later.

Among the dead is the 39-year-old environmental activist Mohamed al-Deen, activists and Amnesty said. He was killed from a birdshot wound to his head, Amnesty said, adding that there were five other serious injuries and hundreds wounded.

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