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Saudi Shi'ites protest peacefully in east

RIYADH (Reuters) - Hundreds of Saudi Shi’ites staged peaceful protests in the kingdom’s oil-producing east on Friday in support of Shi’ites in Bahrain and political freedoms at home, activists said.

Demonstrators gathered in Awamiya, a village near the main Shi’ite center of Qatif, shortly after afternoon prayers. They waved mostly Bahraini, but also Saudi, flags.

Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops to Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy, to help contain pro-democracy protests led by that Gulf Arab country’s Shi’ite majority.

The protesters in Awamiya called for an end to what they say is sectarian discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite Muslims by the Sunni absolute monarchy.

They shouted slogans including: “Oil and unemployment, where is the justice!” and “Bahrain free, Peninsula army out!” and carried placards which read: “The people want human rights!” activists told Reuters.

Security forces -- which included police cars, at least two armored vehicles and about ten buses -- kept their distance from the protesters, they said.

Saudi 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, a monarchy that usually does not tolerate public dissent, denies such charges.

The world’s number one oil producer and a U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia has not seen the kind of mass uprisings that have rocked the Arab world this year, but a number of protests have taken place in the Eastern Province, where most of the kingdom’s oil fields are.

Almost no Saudis in major cities answered a Facebook call for protest on March 11, in the face of a massive security presence around the country.

Dozens of Saudi men gathered outside the Interior Ministry in the capital in March to demand the release of jailed relatives.

King Abdullah last month offered $93 billion in handouts and boosted his security and religious police forces but did not make concessions on political rights.

Reporting by Jason Benham; Editing by Janet Lawrence