Saudi Police Open Fire To Break Up A Protest
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi police officers opened fire at a protest march in a restive, oil-rich province on Thursday, wounding at least three people, according to witnesses and a Saudi government official. The crackdown came a day before a planned “day of rage” throughout the country that officials have said they will not tolerate.
Witnesses described the small protest march in the eastern city of Qatif as peaceful, but an Interior Ministry spokesman said demonstrators had attacked the police before the officers began firing, Reuters reported. The spokesman said that the police fired over the protesters’ heads, but that three people were injured in the melee, including a policeman.
Some residents agreed that the police had shot above people’s heads.
The clash with protesters in Qatif, located in a heavily Shiite region, underscored longstanding tensions in Saudi society: there is a sense among the Shiite minority that it is discriminated against by a government practicing a zealous form of Sunni orthodoxy. Mohammad Zaki al-Khabbaz, a human rights activist in Qatif who was reached by telephone, said that security forces fired tear gas and shot in the air trying to disperse the crowd.
He said an official at a nearby hospital reported that two protesters had been wounded, one in the leg and one in the arm. Mr. Khabbaz said he was told that they were not allowed to receive any visitors.
Another resident in Qatif who watched the march, Abdulwahab al-Oraid, said it was not clear why the police opened fire at what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration that started with 100 people and later grew to about 300.
“There is a fear of Friday’s protests,” Mr. Oraid said. “We think this is a message: ‘Don’t protest in any Shiite areas on Friday.’ ”
Witnesses were unclear whether the police fired rubber bullets intended for crowd control or kinds of ammunition.
A video posted online, which was said to be from Qatif, showed a group of young men chanting “The people want the release of the prisoners” and “Our protest is peaceful; Sunni and Shiites are bothers; we will never betray this country.” A few moments later, popping sounds are heard in the distance and protesters stop marching.
Saudi Arabia has witnessed several small demonstrations in recent days and several protesters have been arrested, according to human rights activists. Residents across the kingdom said that the government had beefed up its security presence on the streets and closed access to major squares in big cities where protesters are expected to gather Friday. So far, 30,000 people have posted on a Facebook site dedicated to demonstrations, saying they would attend on Friday.
“Streets are packed with police vehicles,” said Mohamad al-Qahtani, a human rights activist in Riyadh, the capital. “I have never seen anything like this. It says that the regime fears its people.”
Residents in Riyadh reported that they have received text messages warning them against participating in Friday’s protest.
The “day of rage” is modeled after other protests in the past two months throughout the Middle East that have toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Tensions have been especially high in Saudi Arabia since protests began in Bahrain, an island nation connected to Saudi Arabia’s east’s coast by a bridge. Bahrain, a majority Shiite country, is governed by a Sunni monarch and protests there have been led by Shiites who say they suffer discrimination.
Last month, the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, announced a $10 billion increase in welfare spending to help young people marry, buy homes and open businesses, in what was seen as an attempt to head off unrest.