DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain said on Saturday it had uncovered a 54-member Iranian-linked militant group suspected of involvement in attacks on security forces, including organising a prison break in January, and seized automatic weapons.
It was one of the biggest security operations against suspected militants Bahrain blames for an increase in armed attacks on security forces in the Western-allied kingdom, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based.
Tensions have been rising in the kingdom since last year after authorities stepped up a crackdown on dissent, banning the main opposition group al-Wefaq, arresting a leading activist and critic of the government and revoking the citizenship of the spiritual leader of the country’s majority Shi’ites.
State news agency BNA on Saturday quoted the chief prosecutor Ahmed al-Hammadi as saying that security forces have arrested 25 members and seized 11 pistols and Kalashnikov rifles in a series of operations, including an attempted arms smuggling in December.
Hammadi also said that an investigation into the January prison break revealed that a Germany-based leader of the group had helped organise trips for members from Bahrain to Iran and Iraq for training, according to BNA.
“The investigation revealed that ... several members (were sent) to Iran and Iraq to train on the use of explosives and automatic weapons in (Iranian) Revolutionary Guards camps to prepare them to carry out terrorist acts inside the country,” Hammadi said, according to BNA.
The group was suspected of involvement in six armed attacks, including the Jan. 1 assault on Jau prison that resulted in the death of one policeman and the escape of 10 convicted inmates and the stealing of weapons, the report said.
Members of the group also killed an officer at his farm in Bilad al-Qadeem on Jan. 28, and organised an attempt to smuggle the escaped Jau prison inmates abroad in February. Authorities said at the time that security forces killed three men and captured seven during a gun battle at sea as they tried to flee to Iran.
Bahrain in February executed three men convicted in the death of three policemen, including an Emirati officer, in a 2014 bomb attack.
Bahrain frequently accuses Iran, a Shi’ite theocracy, of being behind bomb attacks targeting security services and fomenting Shi’ite protests. Iran denies interfering in Bahrain, although it acknowledges support for opposition groups seeking greater rights for Bahrain’s Shi’ites.
The Shi’ite community led Arab Spring protests in 2011 that were put down by the government with help from neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Thousands of mainly Shi’ite Muslim Bahrainis are in jail on charges ranging from participating in anti-government protests to armed attacks on security forces.
Reporting by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Clelia Oziel