Riyadh: Two people were killed and three wounded in an exchange of fire between Saudi security forces in the oil-producing Eastern Province and what the interior ministry on Thursday called gunmen serving a foreign power.
In a statement quoted on the Saudi Press Agency, the ministry said shooting erupted on Wednesday during the funeral of a person killed in what it described as a string of attacks earlier this week on security checkpoints in the province, where much of the kingdom`s Shi`ite minority lives.
The ministry earlier this week denied that Shi`ites had been killed by bullets fired by police in Qatif, an administrative unit of the province. In its statement on Thursday, the ministry said two people were killed and six wounded in those incidents.
"These casualties have occurred due to the exchange of gunfire with unknown criminal elements who have infiltrated among citizens, and are firing from residential areas and narrow streets," it said.
Echoing language it used after an attack on a police station in the eastern province last month, the ministry said: "The goal of those who provoke unrest is to achieve dubious aims dictated to them by their foreign masters."
The previous references to foreign meddling have been widely read to mean Shi`ite Iran, the Sunni-led kingdom`s rival for influence in the Gulf, which Sunni Arab monarchies in the region saw as the force behind unrest earlier this year in majority Shi`ite Bahrain.
Iran has denied repeated accusations that it is trying to destabilize Bahrain. It has dismissed an alleged plot that U.S. authorities said last month had implicated Iran`s security agencies in a plan to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Saudi Arabia has avoided mass protests that have led to the ouster of four Arab leaders this year, reacting to the unrest in the region by promising to spend some $130 billion on housing and other social benefits for its citizens.
LINKED BY BRIDGE TO STRIFE-HIT BAHRAIN
But small-scale protests have taken place in the province. Activists said authorities responded by deploying armed riot police and establishing checkpoints.
The province is the center of Saudi Arabia`s oil production facilities and is connected by a 16-mile causeway to Bahrain, where Riyadh sent troops earlier this year to help the fellow-Sunni government crush protests led by Shi`ites.
Saudi Shi`ites complain of systematic discrimination, neglect in public spending, and incitement against them in religious sermons and educational materials.
The kingdom, which is founded on an austere form of Sunni Islam and regards itself as the guardian of that faith, disputes this, and Saudi King Abdullah has appointed Shi`ite officials to advisory government bodies.
A Saudi activist said earlier this week that three people had been killed by gunfire in the region, including two he said were hit by police bullets during a protest march. Another activist said police had fired on protests in Qatif and the nearby town of Awamiya.
The ministry at that time said two people had died in incidents in the region, including a shooting at a police checkpoint near which tires had been set on fire, and said it would investigate the incidents.
In its statement on Thursday, the ministry said tires had been burned and roads blocked during the funeral that saw the most recent shootings, and said it was ready to crack down.
"It warns whoever deludes himself about violating order that he will be deterred strongly, and that the security forces in the area are fully authorized to deal with the situation and end these criminal actions."