Saudi Arabia is demolishing centuries-old homes in a Shiite town, leveling a historic district that officials say has become a hideout for local militants. The destruction has sparked shootouts in the streets between Saudi security forces and Shiite gunmen and stoked sectarian tensions that resonate around the region.
The violence in the Shiite town of al-Awamiya, which is centered in the Sunni kingdom’s oil-rich east coast, adds a new source of instability at a time of increasing confrontation in the Gulf. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and its Shiite-led rival Iran have spiked in recent weeks. Also, Saudi Arabia and its allies severed ties with neighboring Qatar, demanding among other things that it cut off ties with Iran.
Bulldozers began demolishing al-Awamiya’s historic district on May 10, with plans to tear down several hundred homes.
At least six security officers, six Shiite gunmen and a number of civilians have been killed in al-Awamiya’s skirmishes, shootings and bombings this year, most of them in the weeks since government contractors began tearing down the town’s historical center. The old district is known as al-Mosawara, Arabic for the “walled fortress,” named for its 400-year-old walls that protected the area from raiders.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told The Associated Press that “terrorists in al-Awamiya… have increased their armed violence” since the start of the “development project in al-Mosawara.”
Security forces patrol the town’s streets in armored vehicles, frequently coming under fire from militants. Police say a South Asian construction worker was killed by an improvised explosive device targeting the demolition workers.
Activists say security forces frequently open fire in the streets. A two-year-old girl died when shots were fired at her parents’ car, a shooting that activists blamed on police. Read full in ABC News