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Thu 24 Nov 2011 11:10 AM

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Two killed in gunfight in Saudi province

Saudi security forces exchange fire with gunmen ‘serving a foreign power'

Two killed in gunfight in Saudi province
Saudi has moved to quash small-scale protests in a bid to avoid Arab Spring unrest

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

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 destabilise
Bahrain. It has dismissed an alleged plot that US 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 $130bn on housing and other social benefits for its

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 centre of Saudi Arabia's oil production
facilities and is connected by a 16m 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

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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
tyres had been set on fire, and said it would investigate the incidents.

In its statement on Thursday, the ministry said tyres had
been burned and roads blocked during the funeral that saw the most recent
shootings, and said it was ready to crack down.

"It [the ministry] warns whoever deludes himself about
violating order that he will be deterred strongly, and that the security forces
in the area are fully authorised to deal with the situation and end these
criminal actions."

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