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US blacklists Bahraini group as 'terrorist'

State Department official calls al-Ashtar Brigades 'Iranian-sponsored terrorists'
File photo of anti-government protester near Manama in 2015 (AFP)

The US State Department has blacklisted the al-Ashtar Brigades, a Bahraini group that the US called an "Iran-backed terrorist group".

"Al-Ashtar is yet another in a long line of Iranian sponsored terrorists who kill on behalf of a corrupt regime," Nathan Sales, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism said in a statement on Tuesday. 

"Today’s designation serves notice that the United States sees plainly what Iran is trying to do to Bahrain through its proxy, the terrorist group al-Ashtar." 

Bahrain, an absolute monarchy, has witnessed unrest since 2011 when pro-democracy Arab Spring protests were met by a violent crackdown by the government and its Gulf allies that deployed troops to the tiny island.

Authorities in Manama have blamed Iran for the uprising, accusing Tehran of provoking instability and backing militants from the mostly Shia population against the Sunni monarchy.

The Shia-led opposition in Bahrain says it is committed to peaceful activism in the pursuit of equal rights on par with its Sunni compatriots.

The State Department described the al-Ashtar Brigades as a "terrorist organisation aimed at overthrowing the Bahraini government".

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It said the group claimed responsibility for numerous militant attacks against police and security targets in Bahrain.

Rights groups have accused the Bahraini government of repressing free speech, torture and arbitrary detentions in a crackdown on dissent.

"Courts convict and imprison peaceful dissenters, including prominent human rights defenders and opposition leaders, and file trumped-up charges against their relatives. Security forces use excessive force to disperse peaceful assemblies," Human Rights Watch said in a report earlier this year.

Bahrain is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Last year, Washington approved $3.8bn in arms sales to Bahrain, lifting human rights conditions imposed by the administration of former President Barack Obama. 

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