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Key Saudi prince gives backing to religious police

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, June 17 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's interior minister signalled his backing for the kingdom's controversial morality police this week, saying they were on a par with the security forces.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice -- a key arm of the powerful religious establishment -- has been under pressure after incidents where Saudis died in their custody or in car accidents as the police pursued them.

"The Commission completes the security forces and the security forces complete the Commission," Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz said in comments carried by the state news agency SPA late on Tuesday.

"If members of the Commission do wrong ... they will be treated just as the security forces are treated."

Last month, a court acquitted two commission members accused of causing the deaths of four youths in a car accident after chasing them on suspicion of being with unrelated women.

With over 5,000 members, the men have wide powers to patrol public places to ensure unrelated men and women do not mix, uncover use of alcohol and drugs, and urge men to perform Muslim prayers in mosques.

The body answers to King Abdullah but his half-brother Prince Nayef also has sway over it.

Prince Nayef was appointed second deputy prime minister in March, a post that could strengthen his chances of becoming crown prince one day. Crown Prince Sultan is convalescing in Morocco after an operation this year in the United States.

The veteran interior minister is seen as a hawk with strong ties to the religious establishment which is against raising women's role in public life.

Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, has been under pressure to rein in religious radicalism since the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001, where 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi. (Reporting by Asma Alsharif)

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