Two protesters were killed in overnight clashes with police in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province following the arrest of a prominent Shiite imam, activists said yesterday, raising fears of a new wave of unrest in the Sunni-ruled kingdom's east.
Akhbar Shakuri and Mohammed Filfel, both Shiite, died and a dozen other protesters were wounded during the clashes that erupted when police opened fire to disperse a demonstration against the arrest of Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr, said the activists.
The violence occurred in Riyadh Street, the main artery of Qatif city in Eastern Province, they said. The reports could not be independently verified.
The interior ministry described Sheikh Al Nimr as an "instigator of sedition" as it announced that he was arrested at Al Awamiya in Eastern Province on Sunday, after being wounded in a leg while putting up resistance.
He was transferred to hospital and was due to be interrogated, the ministry spokesman, Mansur Turki, said, cited by the official SPA news agency.
"Security forces will not tolerate instigators of sedition who have offended their society and homeland, making of themselves tools in the hands of the nation's enemies," Mr Turki said, apparently referring to the Sunni-dominated kingdom's main regional rival Iran.
The reported deaths come after Amnesty International said in May that seven people had been killed and a number of others injured in clashes between the authorities and protesters in the country's Shiite-populated region since November.
Sheikh Nimr's arrest came 10 days after he had said he was confident that his arrest or killing would be a "motivation" for protests to reignite in the Eastern Province, during a speech at a mosque in Al Awamiya.
He is considered one of the main proponents of social unrest in the region, where demonstrations first took place in February last year after an outbreak of violence between Shiite pilgrims and religious police in the holy city of Medina.
Three years ago, the 53-year-old cleric had called for separating the Eastern Province's Shiite-populated Qatif and Al-Ihsaa governorates from Saudi Arabia and uniting them with Shiite-majority Bahrain.
Late on Sunday, Bahrain's interior minister, Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, met his new Saudi counterpart, Prince Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, in Jeddah, Bahrain's state news agency BNA reported.
Prince Ahmed said during their meeting that "security is one in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia" and insisted on "strengthening communication and direct coordination between both brotherly states". BNA said.
Saudi Arabia's estimated two million Shiites, who frequently complain of marginalisation, mostly live in the east, where the vast majority of the Opec kingpin's huge oil reserves lie.