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Saudi Arabia calm on planned 'Day of Rage,' but protests spark violence elsewhere

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 11, 2011; 9:53 PM

QATIF, SAUDI ARABIA - A "Day of Rage" planned by critics of the Saudi Arabian government proved relatively calm Friday, with peaceful demonstrations in and around the eastern city of Qatif, a day after police fired on protesters there, and elsewhere in oil-rich Eastern province.

Witnesses reported a heavy police presence in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, but no protests.

In other countries in the region, protests led to violence. Demonstrators in Bahrain who have been on the streets for almost a month calling for democratic reforms were attacked by government supporters brandishing sticks and knives, witnesses said. Police fired tear gas on the protesters as they attempted to march to a royal complex on the outskirts of Manama, the capital.

In Yemen, security forces opened fire on protesters near Aden, injuring at least six, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital, Sanaa, to demand the immediate ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh and to mourn the death of a protester killed by security forces at a rally Tuesday.

Also Friday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates flew to Bahrain to meet with officials there, in a sign of the United States' continued concern about the events unfolding in the region.

In Saudi Arabia, hundreds marched in Ahsa, an oasis town in the country's largely Shiite Eastern province, and several protesters were arrested, but there was no violence, said Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, president of the country's Human Rights First Society. Another witness said that marches were held in three small towns outside Qatif and that hundreds of people marched in Qatif itself late in the evening. All the protests took place without incident.

Protesters have called for increased democracy in the country that has been ruled by the Saud family since they united it by conquest almost 80 years ago. The royal family and the majority of the country's population are Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims in Eastern province - home to the bulk of the nation's oil reserves - have urged an end to what they say are discriminatory government measures that prevent them from holding many public positions and that restrict their public services.

Fridays have been the biggest days for demonstrations and confrontations since protests started sweeping North Africa and the Middle East two months ago; the Saudi government had indicated this week that it would do whatever it took to stop demonstrations from taking place this Friday. Protests, even small ones, are highly unusual in the authoritarian country.

In Qatif, police shot and wounded at least two protesters Thursday night, and a police officer was also injured, according to the Interior Ministry. On Friday, a black bus filled with heavily armed members of what appeared to be the Saudi Arabian National Guard sat parked near the town's main square. But the afternoon passed quietly.

In Riyadh, witnesses said, police helicopters hovered above the city and police officers packed streets leading to proposed demonstration sites.

"The entire area, the designated area for protests, was completely barricaded by police cruisers. You see police checkpoints at every place to get in," said Mohammed al-Qahtani, the head of the Association of Civil and Political Rights in Saudi Arabia.

In Bahrain, security forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters, most of them Shiites, who were trying to march to the royal palace. A group of government supporters attacked the protesters with sticks and knives, witnesses said, adding that dozens of people were injured. Witnesses said that some protesters retaliated by throwing rocks at the security forces.

The Gulf Cooperation Council states this week pledged $20 billion in aid for Bahrain and Oman, which has also been struck by protests.

The protest in Yemen's capital came a day after the opposition rejected a presidential offer of a new constitution. Surrounded by pictures of the man who was shot dead by security forces this week and was being buried Friday afternoon, the demonstrators chanted, "The people want the fall of the president."

Special correspondent Portia Walker in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.

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