By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 6:59 PM
DAMMAM, SAUDI ARABIA - Three people were injured when police opened fire during a protest in eastern Saudi Arabia on Thursday, according to a witness and a Saudi official.
The witness, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by authorities, said police at first fired over protesters' heads but then began shooting directly at them during a march in central Qatif, a predominantly Shiite town in oil-rich Eastern Province.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said police fired over the heads of protesters after demonstrators attacked them, the Reuters news agency reported. He did not say how the injuries were caused but said one of those hurt was a policeman.
At the time of the shooting, "the police were maybe 50 meters away" from the protesters, who were calling for the release of prisoners, the witness said. It was not immediately clear whether the bullets were live or rubber.
"The guy, he goes talking only, and directly the police shot at him by gun, and all the people started running," the witness said.
The witness said he later visited two of the victims in the hospital. An 18-year-old man was shot in the hand. A 24-year-old man was shot in the leg. A nurse told the witness that the third man had been shot in the abdomen.
Larger protests are planned for Friday across Saudi Arabia. Demonstrators are seeking reforms that include a say in government, better economic opportunities and, in the Shiite-heavy eastern area, an end to what protesters call systematic discrimination by the Sunni monarchy.
Shiites are a minority in Saudi Arabia, making up 10 to 15 percent of the population.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said at a news conference in Jiddah on Wednesday that the country would not tolerate protests and called for dialogue instead. Earlier in the week, the country's council of senior clerics said public protests were un-Islamic.
That has not dissuaded protest organizers, who plan protests in Riyadh, Qatif and elsewhere Friday, a day of prayer and the largest planned day of protests in the region over the past two months of unrest.
Small protests have been taking place for weeks in Qatif and in nearby Shiite towns. Such demonstrations are highly unusual in the strictly run country.
Officials have been watching with nervousness the unrest in Bahrain, a small island nation that is just a 16-mile drive over a causeway from Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, home to much of the country's oil reserves.
In Bahrain, the Shiite majority has risen up in protest against the Sunni monarchy. Analysts say that the Saudi government worries that the same thing could happen with its own Shiite minority and that it also fears the influence of predominantly Shiite Iran if Bahrain were to be taken over by Shiite leaders.
In Washington, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that U.S. officials had told the Saudi government and others that the United States supported "a set of universal values" in the region. "And that includes the right to peaceful assembly, to peaceful protest, to peaceful speech," he said.
!Daily Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. in Washington contributed to this report.