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Anti-government protesters hold posters of Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim during an anti-government protest organised by Bahrain's main opposition group Al Wefaq, in Budaiya, west of Manama, Bahrain May 17, 2013. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo

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By Noah Browning

DUBAI (Reuters) - Activists said security forces killed a protester during a raid on the home village of Bahrain's Shi'ite Muslim spiritual leader on Tuesday.

Bahraini authorities said they made several arrests but did not comment on the reported death in Diraz, where supporters of Ayatollah Isa Qassim from the island kingdom's minority Shi'ite community have set up a protest camp.

Pictures posted online showed the body of a man covered in blood, though Reuters was unable to confirm their authenticity. One activist said mosques were broadcasting messages calling people onto the streets to protect Qassim.

Security forces entered the village early on Tuesday, days after Qassim was sentenced to a year in jail, suspended for three years, on charges of corruption.

An interior ministry statement said the operation was intended "to impose security and general order after the area became a haven for people wanted in security cases and fugitives from justice".

Bahrain in 2011 crushed an uprising by Shi'ites demanding reforms that would give them more representation in the country ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy.

Activist Ebtasam Alsaegh, from the neighbouring village of Bani Jamra, told Reuters she could hear police firing birdshot.

"The situation is terrifying ... It's making people really angry and the young men are taking to the streets. The mosque speakers are calling out 'God is Great', urging people to come out and protect Sheikh Qassim," she said by phone.

Other pictures posted by activists showed at least 10 armoured police cars lining up, officers shooting tear gas cannisters and masked protesters erecting road blocks with planks and cinder blocks. Reuters was not able to confirm their authenticity.

Human Rights Watch condemned the Diraz operation as a crackdown on freedom of expression.

"Yet again the architects of bloody destabilising violence in Bahrain appear to be the Al Khalifa government, and the timing of this operation - two days after King Hamad's convivial meeting with President Trump - can hardly be a coincidence," the group said in a statement.

In his first visit abroad to the Saudi capital Riyadh, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday Washington's relations with Bahrain were set to improve, after tensions with his predecessor Barack Obama over the kingdom's rights record.

Bahrain denies any discrimination or systematic excessive use of force. It accuses elements of the opposition of seeking to overthrow it by force with help from arch-foe Iran.

(Additional reporting by Tom Finn; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Heavens)

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