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Saudi security forces break up protest in eastern city

Witnesses say percussion grenades and rubber bullets were used against Shiite protesters. It could be a preview of how the government will handle nationwide protests called for Friday.

March 11, 2011|By Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times
  • Protesters in Qatif, Saudi Arabia on Thursday. The protest by a few hundred people at dusk was reportedly broken up by security forces in uniform and plainclothes.
Protesters in Qatif, Saudi Arabia on Thursday. The protest by a few hundred… (Reuters )

Reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — Saudi security forces on Thursday dispersed a protest by Shiite Muslims in restive Eastern province with percussion grenades and rubber bullets, wounding five people, witnesses in the city of Qatif said. The crackdown heightened fear that nationwide demonstrations scheduled in Saudi Arabia for Friday could turn violent.

The Shiite minority has long complained about religious and employment discrimination in the Sunni Muslim-dominated kingdom. They have been holding more frequent protests in the last few weeks, demanding equal treatment and the freeing of political prisoners.

The protest by a few hundred people at dusk Thursday was broken up by security forces in uniform and plainclothes, said a witness who declined to be identified because he feared arrest. The witness, a local activist, sent pictures of the evening scene that also showed casings from live ammunition, but the use of live rounds could not be confirmed.

Saudi Arabia has so far escaped the mass unrest that has shaken the Middle East and North Africa. But in recent weeks, calls have spread on social networks and by word of mouth to rally against the government Friday.

The government, an absolute monarchy that brooks little dissent, has responded with a series of announcements and steps that suggest extreme nervousness about a public show of discontent.

Thursday's action by security forces in Qatif was "a message … for all Saudis that this will be the government reaction to protests tomorrow," said another local activist who also declined to be identified.

Human rights activists in Riyadh, the capital, voiced similar fear.

"We're worried," said Mohammed Qahtani, co-founder and president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Assn. "They could have done it to scare off people from demonstrating in Riyadh."

Over the last week, the government has marshaled clerics, media, the Interior Ministry and the foreign minister to warn Saudis away from the protests, insisting that demonstrations are banned in the kingdom and are against Islam, claims that human rights activists deny.

On Thursday, at least 10 busloads of police officers gathered at a staging area in the center of town. By evening, the major roads were dotted with police cruisers.

Saudis, including longtime dissidents, were on edge, many citing concern about the possibility of a brutal crackdown.

Attendance at the protests is expected to be low, and it remains unclear where they will be held in Riyadh and other cities.

Saudi Arabia is home to the holiest shrines in Islam, and it's a key U.S. ally, a regional power in the Middle East and the world's biggest oil exporter.

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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