Saudi protest dispersed by police, shots heard

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 9:45 AM

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi police dispersed a demonstration by Shi'ite protesters in the oil-producing Eastern province Thursday with up to four people wounded as shots were heard, witnesses said.

One witness said police fired stun grenades to disperse the crowd of around 200 people. Another witness and a Shi'ite activist said shots were fired.

"There was firing, it was sporadic," the witness said.

He said he could not see where the firing was directed. It was not immediately clear whether rubber bullets or live ammunition were fired. Witnesses and activists said up to four people were wounded.

The incident came a day before a planned protest in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where protests are forbidden as being against Islam.

A Facebook page calling for protests in Saudi Arabia had gathered more than 30,000 followers. But it was not clear whether people would take to the streets, as they have done in the oil-rich eastern province which has been the scene of minor protests over the past three weeks.

A spokesman from the interior ministry could not be reached for comment.

Brent oil prices jumped by $3 per barrel on the Saudi report, fully erasing earlier losses to trade close to $116 a barrel at 1900 GMT. Earlier in the day, oil was falling on the back of Europe's debt woes.

A loose coalition of liberals, rights activists, moderate Sunni Islamists and Shi'ite Muslims has called for political reform. Saudi rulers say the country has no need for protests or parties as an Islamic state applying sharia (Islamic law).

Leaders of the minority Shi'ite community met King Abdullah and also the governor of the eastern province to seek the release of some 26 Shi'ites detained for taking part in protests.

Saudi Shi'ites, who make up about 15 percent of the population, often complain they struggle to get senior government jobs and the same benefits as other citizens.

The government of Saudi Arabia denies these charges.

The U.S. government said it was aware of protests being dispersed in Saudi Arabia and reiterated its support for the right to peaceful assembly.

Earlier this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said protests were not the way to seek change and that foreign meddling in his country's affairs was not welcome.

"The principle of dialogue, I believe, is the best way to address the issues facing society," Prince Saud, a nephew of the king, said. "Change will come through the citizens of this kingdom and not through foreign fingers, we don't need them."

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing and Cynthia Johnston; writing by Martina Fuchs; editing by Robert Woodward)