x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Shiite cleric calls for calm after protesters clash with Saudi force

'Harsh retribution' promised after 11 members of the government's security forces are injured in village attack.

RIYADH // Saudi Arabia has promised harsh retribution after 11 members of the security forces were attacked and injured during unrest in an eastern Shiite village.

The government accused an unidentified foreign country of seeking to undermine the stability of the kingdom as a result of the violence in Awwamiya, in which the assailants, some on motorcycles, used machine guns and Molotov cocktails, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

A man and two women were also injured, it said.

Saudi security forces were fired at from side streets after they stopped a small demonstration in Awwamiya, the interior ministry spokesman, Maj Gen Mansour Al Turki, said. "It wasn't a confrontation between the police and the people," he said. "I don't expect this to be repeated. It was an isolated incident."

Saudi's interior ministry blamed the unrest on a "foreign country", according to a statement released by the kingdom's official news agency.

Shiite activists in Gulf countries are regularly accused of having links with their co-religionists in rival Iran.

The government called on "rational members of their families, those of whose loyalties we have no doubts, to bear their responsibilities towards their sons. Otherwise, all will bear the consequences of their actions."

After the violence late on Tuesday, a prominent Shiite cleric urged protesters to use "words" rather than "bullets" in their fight for equality.

In a sermon to worshippers at a mosque in Awwamiya, Sheikh Nimr Nimr said Shiites must "not respond to bullets with bullets", according to the text of the sermon published online.

"The [Saudi] authorities depend on bullets ... and killing and imprisonment.

"We must depend on the roar of the word, on the words of justice," said Mr Nimr after the two days of violence.

Tension in the village grew on Monday when Saudi police arrested two men, both in their 70s, in a bid to force their sons, accused of taking part in Shiite-led protests, to surrender, an activist said.

Mr Nimr said some protesters used guns during the clashes with police "and we do not accept this. This is not how we operate. This is not in our interest. We will be the losers [if we follow in this path]".

He also blamed Saudi authorities for "provoking" the protesters by firing on them with live bullets.

Mr Nimr pointed out that Saudi authorities were far better armed than the Shiites and that it would be in the people's "interest" to use words, a tool he said was "a more powerful weapon than bullets".

The overwhelming majority of the estimated two million Saudi Shiites live in the eastern province.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Bloomberg