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Bahrain clashes leave five dead near home of Shia leader

Home of Shia cleric Isa Qassim raided by police after at least five killed in street fighting in Diraz
Police vans confront a crowd of protesters in Diraz (screengrab)

Bahrain police on Tuesday opened fire on protesters in clashes that left five people dead, before raiding the home of the country's leading Shia cleric at the centre of a long-running sit-in.

Witnesses told AFP there were multiple civilians wounded in the raid targeting the months-long sit-in in Diraz, the hometown of cleric Isa Qassim. 

Police opened fire at demonstrators throwing stones and petrol bombs, reports said, before entering the home of Qassim and arresting six people. 

The Britain-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy reported the "tragic death of a peaceful protester in the crackdown" on Tuesday, before reports of more fatalities during the raid.

Bahrain's interior ministry on Tuesday said it had "launched a security operation in the village of Diraz to preserve security and civil order as the site is a safe haven for fugitives."

A security official separately told Reuters: "The operation in Diraz was based on intel that several fugitives connected to serious acts of terrorism and the killing of a policeman were harboured in the village. The operation has nothing to do with Qassim."

Activist Ebtasam Alsaegh, from the neighbouring village of Bani Jamra, told Reuters she could hear police firing birdshot.

"The situation is's making people really angry and the young men are taking to the streets. The mosque speakers are calling out 'God is Great', urging people to come out and protect Sheikh Qassim," she said by phone.

Other pictures posted by activists showed at least 10 armoured police cars lining up, officers shooting tear gas cannisters and masked protesters erecting road blocks with planks and cinder blocks. Reuters was not able to confirm their authenticity.

Qassim was sentenced on Sunday to a suspended one-year jail term for illegal fundraising and money laundering.

He was also stripped of citizenship last year, sparking the sit-in outside of his residence in Diraz. 

Isa Qassim (Reuters)

Human Rights Watch condemned the Diraz operation as a crackdown on freedom of expression.

"Yet again the architects of bloody destabilising violence in Bahrain appear to be the Al Khalifa government, and the timing of this operation - two days after King Hamad's convivial meeting with President Trump - can hardly be a coincidence," the group said in a statement.

Bahrain has been shaken by unrest since security forces crushed Shia-led protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister in 2011.

Bahraini authorities have accused Shia Iran of fomenting unrest in the kingdom. Tehran has consistently denied involvement.

Despite repeated calls from their Western allies, Bahrain's rulers have made no concessions to the Shia opposition and have intensified a crackdown on critics.

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