Shooting and injuries before Saudi day of protest
RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi police fired in the air to disperse protesting Shi'ites and three people were injured on the eve of a day of protests called for Friday by activists using the Internet.
Protests were planned in other Gulf countries such as Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain. The time after Friday prayers has proved to be crucial in popular uprisings that have brought down Tunisian and Egyptian rulers who once seemed invulnerable.
On Thursday, shots were heard near a protest by about 200 Shi'ites in the town of Qatif in Eastern Province, home to some of the world's largest oil fields and a large Shi'ite minority.
The clampdown was a sign that the Saudi government was serious about enforcing a ban on the protests called by Internet activists emboldened by demonstrations that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia before spreading to the Gulf.
"There was firing, it was sporadic," one witness said, adding that the sound of gunfire was interspersed with the noise from stun grenades.
A spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry said police fired over the heads of the crowd after they attacked a police officer who was documenting the protest, and said two protesters and a police officer were injured.
The ministry said later two protesters received hospital treatment for gunshot wounds but it was unclear who had fired the shots. One was wounded in the hand, the other in the leg.
"We have launched an investigation. We investigate what type of guns are used and what bullets," said ministry spokesman Mansur al-Turki.
He said police fired live rounds in the air after shots were fired from among the protesters.
"A number of people from within the crowd fired live ammunition. I don't know where they fired and how they fired," he said
The U.S. government said it was aware of protests being dispersed in Saudi Arabia and reiterated its support for the right to peaceful assembly.
Witnesses gave conflicting accounts of whether police in the Sunni-dominated kingdom, an absolute monarchy where protests are forbidden as being against Islam, used rubber or live bullets.
"They were not targeting the people directly. It was indirect firing," said one Shi'ite activist who asked to be identified only as Hussein.
"It seems they don't mean to kill. We think this is a message not for Qatif but for all Saudis about tomorrow (Friday)."
A Facebook page calling for nationwide protests in Saudi Arabia gathered more than 30,000 followers. In Riyadh police boosted their presence, parking vehicles with their lights flashing at major junctions and patrolling the roads.