DUBAI Saudi Shi'ites marched in the kingdom's oil-producing east Wednesday, demanding the release of prisoners and voicing support for Shi'ites in nearby Bahrain, an activist and witnesses said.
One Saudi Shi'ite activist said hundreds attended several protests including one in the eastern region's main Shi'ite center, Qatif, to show their backing for Bahraini Shi'ites who are protesting against the Sunni royal family.
Bahraini forces used tanks and helicopters to drive protesters from the streets Wednesday, clearing a camp that had become a symbol of the Shi'ite Muslim uprising and drawing rare criticism from their U.S. allies.
Leading Saudi Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar voiced "dismay over events in Bahrain -- bloodshed, violation of sanctities and the intimidation of the people."
"I appeal to (Gulf Arab) leaders ... to act and call for an end to the bloodshed and violence in Bahrain and to make every effort to address the current crisis toward a dialogue and a political solution," Saffar said in a statement.
The activist said there was a large number of anti-riot troops at the protests. "In Qatif, security shot in the air to disperse the protest," he told Reuters.
A witness who declined to be identified said the Qatif march ended peacefully. "However there were shots fired in the air to disperse the crowds but the demo continued for about an hour and a half ... There were no injuries or detentions as far as I could see," he said.
"They were calling for freeing their prisoners and some were calling for civil society and more freedoms ... Some were also showing their solidarity for the people in Bahrain."
Demonstrators shouted slogans against the sending of joint regional Peninsula Shield forces to Bahrain by Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, and the United Arab Emirates.
"People were demanding the withdrawal of the Peninsula force and called on Saudi Arabia to withdraw from Bahrain," another witness said, adding that two police helicopters hovered above the demonstration.
Saudi Arabia's minority Shi'ites complain of discrimination, saying they often struggle to get senior government jobs and benefits available to other citizens.
The government of Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that usually does not tolerate public dissent, denies the charges.
Last month, King Abdullah unveiled handouts worth an estimated $37 billion to ease social pressures and the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said this month that dialogue, rather than protests, should bring about change.
Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, has escaped protests like those across the Arab world, but some dissent has built up as unrest has spread in neighboring Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and Oman.
Web activists had slated March 11 as the first day for mass protests around the country in favor of democratic government and a constitutional rather than absolute monarchy.
But a religious ruling banning demonstrations and a heavy police crackdown appeared to have intimidated most potential protesters.