Ten inmates have escaped after an “armed attack” on a high-security prison in Bahrain, with one policeman killed in what the Gulf state called a “terrorist operation”.
The interior ministry said the escapees from Jaw prison included a number of prisoners held on terrorism-related charges. “Policeman Abdulsalam Saif was martyred trying to deal with the terrorist elements,” it said.
The authorities said four or five assailants armed with automatic rifles and pistols carried out the attack, with 10 inmates — mostly serving life sentences on terrorism charges — managing to escape. An investigation and manhunt was under way, the ministry said.
Bahrain’s jails have swelled with thousands of inmates since a crackdown on dissent after pro-democracy protests in 2011 led by the Shia majority against the minority Sunni ruling family.
The government’s claim of an “armed attack” raised concerns about the radicalisation of fringes of the Shia opposition. Activists, however, caution that the state’s highlighting of so-called “terrorist operations” diverts attention from its own abuses.
What the government characterises as security and judicial reforms, activists regard as harassment with the use of judicial powers to criminalise political protest.
Jaw prison, in the sparsely populated south, suffered riots in 2015 and has seen other breakouts. Last year, 17 prisoners escaped another jail but most were rearrested the next day.
Jaw’s defences have been fortified and consist of three layers of walls, making breaking out “almost impossible”, according to former inmates.
Pro-regime voices were quick to pronounce the breakout as proof that the inmates were terrorists, rather than peaceful protesters.
Ever present, albeit low-intensity, unrest in Bahrain reflects one of the deepest sectarian sores in the Middle East. The government has in recent months moved to bar the country’s main opposition group and revoke the citizenship of its leading Shia cleric.
The ruling Al Khalifa family is strongly backed by the Sunni Gulf states as a bulwark against Iranian interference in the region.
Saudi Arabia led Gulf Arab troops on to the archipelago in 2011 to back the government’s bloody quelling of pro-democracy protests that had taken off in the wake of Arab spring unrest in north Africa.
Riyadh remains concerned that arch-rival Tehran is intervening in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Claims that Iran is behind the unrest in Bahrain are denied by opposition leaders who say they want a more democratic system and an end to discrimination.
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