Saudi forces say they have cleared almost all of what they call "criminals and terrorists" from a mostly Shia town in the kingdom's east.

Thousands of people have had to leave their homes in Awamiya, located in Qatif region of the Eastern Province.

Activists from the area say the people have been removed against their will.

Human Rights Watch said on Sunday that Saudi security forces have completely "surrounded and sealed off" Awamiya.

The New York-based group said that, based on comparative satellite imagery from February and August, large sections of the town have sustained extensive damage, including to civilian infrastructure.

READ MORE: Saudi security forces flatten old quarter of Awamiya

"Saudi authorities should take immediate steps to allow people to safely return home, allow business and clinics to reopen, and compensate residents for property damage and destruction caused by security forces," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director.

Awamiya has seen clashes between protesters and security forces since May, leaving many civilians and police officers dead.

The town was also the hub of a short-lived protest movement in 2011 inspired by the Arab Spring.

The Eastern Province is the source of most of the kingdom's oil [Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters]

One of the movement's leaders, Shia religious figure Nimr al-Nimr, was executed in January 2016 on "terrorism chargea".

The Shia community, which makes up an estimated 10 to 15 percent of Saudi Arabia's population of 32 million, has long complained of marginalisation at the hands of the Sunni-dominated authorities.

The Eastern Province is the source of most of the kingdom's oil but also home to the Shia minority.

Construction work

The latest violence began when construction work started to turn Awamiya's al-Masoura district into a commercial and cultural area.

The project would have seen many old, abandoned houses demolished, to the anger of residents who demanded protection for the neighbourhood's historical heart.

Essam al-Mulla, acting mayor of Dammam, the capital city of Eastern Province, said: "Of course, we didn't get approval from everyone, but most Qatif and Awamiya residents wanted to see their neighbourhoods developed and attracting visitors from among the residents and beyond."

On Wednesday, Awwad al-Awwad, Saudi minister of information and culture, announced on Twitter that the country's leadership had "eliminated terrorism and brought peace and security" to the area, praising the "success [...] of the security forces in cleansing al-Masoura".

 

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

Middle East, Saudi Arabia, War & Conflict