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DUBAI, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday that clashes on Monday night that injured 14 people including 11 policemen in its oil-rich Eastern province, home to a large Shi’ite population, were the work of an unnamed foreign power, usually code for its rival Iran.
The Interior Ministry vowed in a statement to use “an iron fist” against anyone who compromised the country’s security.
Saudi Arabia accuses Shi’ite power Iran of seeking to expand its influence across the Middle East through its links with the Shi’ite populations of Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.
The world’s top oil exporter moved swiftly to suppress protests in the area in February and March, arresting more than 100 people. The protests had petered out for several months but flared up again two days ago.
An emailed statement by a U.S.-based Saudi dissident said Monday night’s protests were caused by the arrest of two elders.
“The protesters burnt police cars after police supported with hundreds of riot police opened fire from the encircled police station in the city,” said Ali Al Ahmed, a Shi’ite Saudi activist in Washington. “The city is now under siege by security forces.”
The ministry statement said: “a group of troublemakers... assembled... some on motorbikes and carrying petrol bombs as they began their actions to disrupt security at the behest of a foreign country which tried to undermine the security of the homeland in a blatant act of interference”.
Saudi Arabia, as part of a joint Gulf security force, sent troops across the causeway linking the Eastern Province to Bahrain in March to keep order, after its ruling Sunni monarchy faced an uprising by a Shi’ite majority.
Since then, even as revolts intensified in Libya and Syria, Saudi Arabia remained virtually untouched despite calls on the internet for public demonstrations.
Saudi Arabia bans demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, and has made clear that its security forces will stop any attempt to disrupt public order.
Oil traders said the news of the clashes on Monday helped Brent oil prices LCOc1 pare some of the earlier losses on Tuesday with November contracts rising by around $1 to above $101 per barrel.
Small-scale protests in the region in March, inspired in part by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, had sent global oil markets reeling.
The Eastern Province is home to more than 2 million Shi’ites, some of whom have called for better access to jobs and to be treated as equals in the ultraconservative kingdom dominated by a rigid form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism.
Qatif, a Shi’ite stronghold on the Gulf coast, and nearby Awwamiya, are in the east which holds much of the oil wealth.
Of the total injured, 11 were security personnel and three were civilians, the ministry statement said.
Police came under gunfire as they tried to disperse the crowd. Nine policemen were shot and wounded and two hurt by petrol bombs, the statement said. It also said one man and two women were injured by gunfire. (Reporting by Firouz Sedarat and Angus McDowall; Writing by Reed Stevenson)
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