RIYADH Saudi Shi'ites held more protests in the kingdom's oil-producing east on Thursday in support of Shi'ites in Bahrain and called for the withdrawal of Saudi forces from there, activists said.
They said hundreds attended four protests in and around the eastern region's main Shi'ite center, Qatif, and also called for the release of Shi'ite prisoners in the kingdom, where the austere Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam is applied.
"They are supporting Bahrain and are demanding the release of Shi'ite prisoners," an activist who declined to be named said.
Protesters shouted "Bahrain Free Free. Saudi forces out!" he said. Another said security forces fired shots into the air.
Earlier on Thursday, the leader of Bahrain's largest opposition group urged Saudi Arabia to withdraw its forces and called for a U.N. inquiry into a crackdown on mainly Shi'ite protesters that has raised tensions in the oil-exporting region.
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, an ally, has escaped the mass uprisings that have rocked 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.
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton and Janet Lawrence)