Saudi man killed trying help citizens flee Awamiya: sources

DUBAI (Reuters) - A Saudi man was shot dead helping evacuate residents the town of Awamiya, where fighting between security forces and armed Shi’ite Muslims have displaced thousands of people, private media and residents reported on Thursday.

Security forces have been trying for 2-1/2 months to flush out gunmen behind attacks on police in Awamiya, a small Shi’ite town of around 30,000 that has been the center of protests by minority Shi’ites against the Sunni government.

Fighting has intensified since last week when elite forces entered the town where authorities in May began a campaign to tear down the old quarter, known as al-Musawara, to prevent gunmen using the narrow streets to evade capture.

Government-licensed media and activists gave conflicting accounts of how the man was killed on Wednesday.

News website said gunmen opened fire on a bus run by a local charity which was evacuating people from Awamiya, killing one person and wounding another.

But local activists said the man, identified as Mohammed al-Ruhaymani, was shot by Saudi forces while helping some citizens leave the town. They posted a photograph of a middle-aged man wearing a white head dress, and a picture of another man in a hospital bed who they said was wounded in the incident.

Authorities have disclosed little information on the situation in Awamiya. Residents and local activists have posted photos and videos suggesting it has become a war zone, with buildings punctured by shellfire and streets strewn with rubble.

Residents estimate that up to 20,000 people have fled to safer towns and villages nearby. Up to 12 people have been killed in the past week: three policemen, and nine civilians, residents say.

The area, in oil-producing Qatif province where many of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority live, has seen unrest and occasional armed attacks on security forces since 2011 “Arab Spring”-style protests. Residents complain of unfair treatment by the Sunni-led government, something Riyadh denies.

Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Robin Pomeroy