Saudi authorities have accused 'terrorists' of trying to jeopardise a project to renovate Awamiyah's historic Almosara neighbourhood
A Saudi town has entered its fifth day under "siege" from the kingdom’s security services, with several reportedly killed after gunmen opened fired on police, and roadblocks were placed at entrances to the town.
Saudi security services launched a raid in the Eastern Province town of Awamiyah early on Wednesday, claiming the historic Almosara neighbourhood was being used as a hideout for Shia militant groups.
The Eastern Province has a large Shia population who have frequently been accused of being linked to Iran and carrying out anti-state activity.
Another aim of the raid, however, appears to be to allow the demolition of Almosara to make way for a planned renovation project. Activists have posted pictures and videos of bulldozers being accompanied by heavily armoured military vehicles towards the site.
Boy, aged two, among dead
According to a statement from the Saudi interior ministry on Friday, workers on the project in Almosara "came under fire and their vehicles were targeted by explosives" from within the neighbourhood. A two-year-old Saudi boy - identified by the pro-government Al-Arabiya news site as Jawad al-Dagher - and a Pakistani resident were killed in the shooting.
The ministry did not specify when the attack took place but said criminals engaged in the drugs and arms trade had tried "to jeopardise the project and protect their terrorist activities that they launch from the abandoned houses in the neighbourhood".
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Al-Hayat newspaper also reported that a man wanted by the authorities had been shot dead, while the Mira al-Jazeera news site claimed two locals had also been killed by the security services in the ensuing clashes.
"A citizen was confirmed martyred as well as another of Indian nationality after being shot by Saudi army gunfire," the online newspaper reported on its Facebook page. The European Saudi Human Rights Organisation (ESHRO) identified one of the men as Ali Abdul Aziz Abu Abdullah.
Dozens have reportedly been injured. The interior ministry said 14 people were wounded, including two Pakistanis, an Indian, a Sudanese and four policemen.
ESHRO said the entrances to the town have been blocked by concrete slabs.
Early on Saturday more gunfire sounded in the area where authorities blocked the roads, a resident said.
"The situation's miserable," another resident told AFP, asking for anonymity.
"We think it will take a long time to finish this operation."
'It's really hard for people and you can imagine these army vehicles, they would open fire like 24 hours. People can't sleep'
- Ameen Nemer, activist
Residents have also reported a lack of water and can only access electricity from private generators. People from the Almosara neighbourhood have been asked to leave by authorities, while photos circulating on social media have shown special police wearing balaclavas and camouflage pants moving residents in armoured cars.
Ameen Nemer, an activist originally from Awamiyah, told Middle East Eye that "most of the entrances to Awamiyah" had now been blocked off so that "cars hardly go out or get in" and that there was only around one entrance still in use, which was also frequently closed.
"I've seen some videos of people collecting the rubbish inside Awamiyah," he said. "The cleaners are not allowed to go there to collect the rubbish, neither are the firefighters allowed to do the job of extinguishing fires wherever it happens, neither are ambulances allowed to enter Awamiyah."
"It's really hard for people and you can imagine these army vehicles, they would open fire like 24 hours. People can't sleep. You have these vehicles going back to where they come and then you have new ones come to replace these soldiers."
One Awamiyah local, speaking to MEE on condition of anonymity, said that residents were working together to try and keep local amenities running
"But regarding to electricity still there is lots of houses outside Almosara without electricity, living on generators," they said. "As a result of the destruction of public and private property that imposed by Saudi forces, many generators were damaged."
"Since the final exams starts on Sunday, in specific periods people can go out especially in the morning during school time from a specific road with fears of being harassed, arrested or being shot carelessly and killed as reported."
"Even while answering your question, everybody in my town can hear the sounds of shooting by armored vehicles."
Project puts pressure on residents
The planned "renovation" of the historic 400-year old Almosara district has been highly controversial. In April, the United Nations called on the Saudi government to halt the project, warning that it threatened "the historical and cultural heritage of the town with irreparable harm".
“Residents have been pressured in many ways, including through power cuts, to vacate their homes and businesses without adequate alternative resettlement options, leaving them at best with insufficient compensation and at worst, with nowhere to go," said the UN Special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha.
The Awamiyah resident said he was deeply worried about the threat to Almosara.
"It is really painful to demolish a historic and archaeological city like Almosara whose lifespan extends for hundreds of years," they said. "Some people who want to close their eyes to the truth and are not affected by the demolition will believe in the lie of development."
"The government doesn't want to improve the city. They mainly want to killed some men hiding inside Almosara."
Awamiyah was also the home of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed in January last year for "terrorism," leading to massive protests internationally, including the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Iran.
Nimr was a driving force behind protests by Shia that began in 2011 and developed into a call for equality in the Sunni-majority kingdom.
Since then, scores of activists have been arrested or killed, sometimes due to torture and execution.
Ameen Nemer said the spiralling violence in the town stemmed from the government's harsh response to calls for reform.
"I believe the government has, from the beginning in 2011, dealt with the [protesters'] demands in a military way, in a police way, that's why the thing has turned into chaos," he said.
"These activists, who are seeing how the government is dealing with any dissent, they are scared of handing themselves to the government, they do not trust the government, they are seeing people who have died on the streets or inside a prison."
He also criticised the Saudi obsession with seeing an Iranian hand behind any unrest in the country and accused them of punishing the country's Shias in order to press a proxy war with Iran, who have also attempted to claim ownership of the Shia struggle for equal rights.
“If you want to fight Iran, go and fight Iran," said Ameen.
"Leave us alone."