RIYADH — Saudi police shot and wounded three Shiite protesters in the oil-rich Eastern Province on Thursday while trying to disperse a protest calling for the release of prisoners, a witness told AFP.
The shooting happened when around 600-800 protesters, all Shiite and including women, took to the streets of the city of Al-Qateef to demand the release of nine Shiite prisoners, said the witness, requesting anonymity.
"As the procession in the heart of the city was about to finish, soldiers started shooting at the protesters, and three of them were wounded," the witness said.
The three wounded, all men, were hospitalised but their injuries were "moderate," he said, adding that the shooting continued for about 10 minutes and around 200 policemen were present.
The incident came as the OPEC kingpin braced for street protests on Friday after calls on Facebook and Twitter.
In Washington, the United States said it would closely monitor unrest in Saudi Arabia and restated its support for universal values.
"We will of course continue to monitor closely this particular situation," said Ben Rhodes, a senior foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama.
"What we have said is that we are going to support a set of universal values in every country in the region."
Life was normal in Riyadh late on Thursday, but with "more than normal" police patrols.
On Saturday, the interior ministry had issued a stern reminder that any demonstration was illegal and warned activists that the security forces had been authorised to crack down on any protests.
The authorities on Sunday released Shiite cleric Sheikh Tawfiq al-Aamer whose arrest last month provoked demonstrations.
Several hundred people had protested in the east on Friday after Aamer was arrested on February 27, reportedly for calling for a constitutional monarchy in the kingdom, which is an absolute monarchy.
Shiites, who are mainly concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province, make up about 10 percent of the Saudi population and complain of marginalisation in a country dominated by the puritanical Wahhabi Sunni doctrine.
The eastern province borders Bahrain, a Shiite-majority kingdom ruled by a Sunni dynasty that has been rocked by anti-government protests since February 14.
Saudi Arabia sits on a quarter of global crude reserves and is the world's largest oil exporter.
Traders are now looking ahead to possible protests in the kingdom but US experts have said that Riyadh seems unlikely to catch the contagion of Arab revolutions although nerves are on edge.
"The main focus remains on the Middle East crisis, as any potential protests for Friday's 'Day of Rage' in Saudi Arabia could make crude oil prices to surge higher, with Brent possibly retesting the $120 per barrel area," Sucden analyst Myrto Sokou told AFP.
"There are large worries in the market... as Saudi Arabia is considered to be one of the biggest oil suppliers globally (and) exports approximately 8.9 million barrels per day," she said.
"If the political turmoil worsens across the Middle East and protests move over to Saudi Arabia, then the situation is getting rather serious."
World oil prices dived Thursday, with New York's main contract, light sweet crude for delivery in April tumbling $2.94 to $101.44 a barrel. Brent North Sea crude for April slid $1.80 to $114.14 per barrel.
Cyber activists have used Facebook to call for a "Day of Rage" after this week's Friday prayers in Saudi Arabia. Another page calls for a "Saudi revolution" to begin on March 20.
On both pages, activists are calling for political and economic reforms, jobs, freedom and women's rights.
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