DUBAI, May 16, (Agencies): A Saudi soldier was killed and five others were wounded fighting suspected militants in the Kingdom’s Qatif province, the interior ministry said on Tuesday, days after a child and a Pakistani builder were killed in the same town of al-Awamiya.
The town, in an oil-producing province and home to a large Shiite population, is a flashpoint between the Sunni Muslim government and Shiites complaining of discrimination.
The soldier was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in a district of al-Awamiya and operations to counter the militants continued with the help of back-up forces, the ministry said.
On May 12, authorities said gunmen killed a Saudi child and a Pakistani man during an attack on workers at a building project in al-Awamiya. In Tuesday’s statement, the Ministry said “terrorist elements” were using explosive devices and landmines to obstruct the building project. Qatif has seen protests for more rights for Shi’ite and these have become more frequent since Nimr al- Nimr, a Shi’ite cleric convicted of inciting violence, was executed a year ago.
Criminals engaged in the drug and arms trade tried “to jeopardise the project and protect their terrorist activities that they launch from the abandoned houses in the neighbourhood”, the ministry said at the time.
Images purportedly from the area and circulating on social media Tuesday showed a wasteland of buildings apparently pockmarked heavily by gunfire and with some showing signs of burning. Rubble and damaged cars lay in the narrow streets. Residents first reported gunfire on Wednesday in Awamiya, as authorities moved on the Almosara district. On Saturday residents told AFP that people from the Almosara area had been asked to leave, and some sought shelter with people in adjacent districts. In March the ministry said a teenage suspect died from wounds after Saudi police “responded” under fire while looking for suspects hiding among abandoned homes in Almosara. A resident at that time told AFP people had been living for more than a month in Almosara resisting the urban renewal project. They had no water and their electricity came only from generators, the resident said, adding they wanted to be given new houses and the area kept as a historical district. Awamiya was the home of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric put to death in January last year for “terrorism”.
Nimr was a driving force behind protests by Shiites that began in 2011 and developed into a call for equality in the Sunni-majority kingdom. But residents in the Awamiya area have also complained about the presence of people involved in criminal activity including the drug trade. Shiites in eastern Saudi Arabia live just across from Shiite majority Bahrain where authorities have accused Iran of trying to spark unrest. Riyadh’s Sunni rulers regularly accuses Shiite-dominated Iran of interference throughout the Middle East. Iran is expected to be a focus this weekend when US President Donald Trump, on his first overseas trip, holds summits in Riyadh with Muslim leaders from the Gulf and around the world.