August 4, 2012 3:14 pm

Saudi gunfight leaves two dead

A Saudi security officer has been shot dead during a gunfight in the restive Shia-populated province of Qatif.

A gunman was also killed in the incident, which happened late on Friday, the interior ministry said.

“Four armed rioters on motorcycles attacked a police patrol car while waiting at an intersection in Qatif,’’ state news agency SPA reported, quoting interior ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki. Another security officer was also wounded in the attack, he said.

The gunmen were arrested. One died while he was being taken to the hospital, General al-Turki said.

The incident is the latest in a series of clashes in the oil-rich eastern province, where the majority of the country’s Shia population live. About 11 people died including 10 protesters since demonstrations erupted in February last year, demanding freeing of Shia prisoners and equal rights.

Small-scale but persistent protests intensified after the Saudi government sent troops to neighbouring Bahrain to help its Sunni royal family end an uprising led by its Shia majority population.

Saudi Arabia has avoided the kind of uprisings that have brought down Arab regimes across the region last year, yet the eastern province remained a source of instability . Saudi Shia accuse the government of discrimination and limited access to senior ministerial, security and military jobs, but the government denies such accusations.

Last month three were killed in protests after the government arrested radical cleric sheikh Nimr al-Nimr who had preached against the royal family and accused them of discriminating against the Shia. The government accused him of inciting sedition and added that two of his sons are on a government scholarship and his wife was being treated in New York at the expense of the Saudi state.

Last year the interior ministry warned that it would clamp down with an “iron fist’’ on rioters who attack security forces. The ministry accused “foreign parties”, which is understood to be Shia Iran, of stirring trouble in the eastern province. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have both accused Iran of fomenting the unrest among members of the sect in both countries. Tehran denies the accusations.

The interior ministry in January issued a list of wanted 23 residents of Qatif. They were accused of orchestrating attacks against the security forces and acting on behalf of “a foreign power.”

Saudi Shia have repeatedly denied accusations that the protesters were agents of Iran or any foreign power, adding that grievances should be addressed.

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