Saudi security forces have withdrawn from Shiite villages in Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia following unrest last week in which four people were killed, witnesses said on Monday.
The move appears aimed at reducing friction with the kingdom’s minority Shiites on the first day of Ashura, a 10-day commemoration of the 7th-century killing of the highly revered Imam Hussein.
Security forces pulled out overnight from Shweika and Awamiya villages in the Eastern Province, scene of intense clashes between protesters and security forces of the Sunni-dominated kingdom, witnesses and rights activists said.
“Armoured vehicles transporting anti-riot forces towards Dammam city have pulled out and checkpoints have been lifted,” said one witness, after those forces were brought in as reinforcements during demonstrations.
Four Shiites were shot dead last week. The interior ministry said security forces had come under fire from gunmen operating on “foreign orders,” hinting at involvement by Saudi’s arch rival Iran.
The ministry said two policemen were wounded in the clashes.
Later on Monday, state news agency SPA reported that the governor of Eastern Province, Prince Mohammed bin Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, against whom graffiti was painted on walls in the streets of Qatif city, had met Shiite dignitaries.
The dignitaries “expressed their rejection and dismay at the situation in Qatif and that they do not approve of such violations by some people,” the statement said.
They also “affirmed their allegiance to their leadership,” it added.
Prince Mohammed, who has vowed that the interior ministry will investigate the deaths, said the kingdom “will not allow people like those, as little as they are in numbers, to disturb security,” the statement said.
A source who attended the meeting, the second of its kind in a week, told AFP that Prince Mohammed “has listened to the demands of the Shiites in the province, especially those concerning the release of prisoners, creating justice for all citizens, and ending sectarian discrimination.”
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP the meeting which lasted more than one and a half hours was “positive.”
Meanwhile, prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr Nimr demanded the “release of all those detained in the protests, and all prisoners of conscience — Sunnis and Shiites.”
In a speech at the funeral of one of the protesters, Nimr said: “We are determined to demand our legitimate rights by peaceful means.”
Eastern Province is home to the majority of the kingdom’s Shiite population of around two million, who represent around 10 percent of Saudis.
In March, Shiites in the oil-rich province demonstrated in sympathy with fellow Shiites in neighbouring Bahrain, after security forces, backed by troops from its Sunni Gulf neighbours, clamped down on pro-democracy protests led by that country’s majority Shiite community.
Another Shiite cleric, Munir al-Khabbaz, called on protesters to use “civilised means while demanding their rights and rejecting violence,” adding that “clashing with security forces is religiously prohibited.”
“The sons of Qatif do not implement foreign agendas but demand their rights,” he said.