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Saudi Police Fire Shots At Protesters

Shiite protesters hold Saudi flags and portraits of prisoners during a demonstration in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday. AP hide caption

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Shiite protesters hold Saudi flags and portraits of prisoners during a demonstration in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday.

AP

Saudi police opened fire Thursday to disperse a protest in the mainly Shiite east, leaving at least one man injured, as the government struggled to prevent a wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world from reaching the kingdom.

The rare violence raised concern about a crackdown ahead of more planned protests after Friday prayers in different cities throughout the oil-rich kingdom. The pro-Western monarchy is concerned protests could open footholds for Shiite powerhouse Iran and has accused foreigners of stoking the protests, which are officially forbidden.

Despite the ban and a warning that security forces will act against them, protesters demanding the release of political prisoners took to the streets for a second day in the eastern city of Qatif. Several hundred protesters, some wearing face masks to avoid being identified, marched after dark asking for "Freedom for prisoners."

Police, who were lined up opposite the protesters, fired percussion bombs, followed by gunfire, causing the crowd to scatter, a witness said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.

The witness said at least one protester was injured and lifted by others to a car for treatment. It was unclear how the protester was injured.

Scores of protesters in Qatif had also marched in the city streets Wednesday night.

NPR's Frank Langfitt told Melissa Block on All Things Considered that the region in the east was expected to see the most tension in Saudi Arabia because it's home to the Shiites and large oil reserves. Shiites make up about 10 percent of the country.

"They complain bitterly about discrimination by the Sunni majority," Langfitt said.

He said Saudi authorities arrested about 27 people during protests in the east last week, but then released them. "The regime said earlier this week, 'We're not going to tolerate protests,' and I think that's what you're seeing tonight in the east."

Saudi Arabia has struggled to stay ahead of the unrest that has led to the ouster of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders in recent months.

Last month, the ultra-conservative government announced an unprecedented economic package worth an estimated $36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness. It also has reiterated that demonstrations are forbidden in the kingdom because they contradict Islamic laws and society's values and said security forces were authorized to act against anyone violating the ban.

So far the demonstrations have been small and concentrated in the east among Shiites demanding the release of detainees. But activists emboldened by other uprisings have set up Facebook groups calling for protests in the capital, Riyadh, on Friday to demand democratic reforms. One such group garnered more than 30,000 supporters.

Plans for Friday's "Day of Rage" were largely under wraps, Langfitt reported. "The organizers are afraid to say very much, they're afraid of alerting the police. That could lead to big arrests," he said.

The Saudi protesters' demands are similar to the demands of protesters across the Middle East and North Africa in recent weeks, Langfitt said.

"They talk about a more open political system, ... the idea of a constitutional monarchy and elections," he said. "But keep in mind the opposition here is not very strong and it's very fragmented. And of course any shift to democracy would be a huge step. This is the kingdom; it's an absolute monarchy. All power flows from King Abdullah, who's actually quite popular."

Ordinary Saudis are cautious talking about politics, Langfitt said. "I talked to a bunch of guys [at a food court in an upscale mall] and they said it's dangerous to talk. One day you're here, the next day you might not be. So there's a sense that if you talk too much about this stuff, bad things can happen to you."

The spread of calls for protests has prompted government officials to issue strong warnings that it will act against activists taking to the streets.

"This week the foreign minister, Prince Saudi al-Faisal, told foreigners not to get involved in the affairs here," Langfitt said. "He said, 'We'll cut off the fingers of those who try to interfere in our internal matters.'"

Amnesty International called on Saudi authorities to reverse the ban on peaceful protests in the kingdom.

Philip Luther, a spokesman for the international rights group, said authorities should address the need for major human rights reforms and heed the growing calls for change instead of trying to intimidate protesters.

"Reports that the Saudi authorities plan to deploy troops to police upcoming demonstrations are very worrying," he said.

The Interior Ministry has banned demonstrations, saying they contradict Islamic laws and society's values and adding that some people have tried to go around the law to "achieve illegitimate aims."

"Reform cannot be achieved through protests ... The best way to achieve demands is through national dialogue," al-Faisal said Wednesday.

NPR's Frank Langfitt contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.