Saudi Arabia Demonstrators Hold Rallies in al-Qatif, Awwamiya

About 1,000 people in Saudi Arabia’s eastern city of al-Qatif defied a ban on demonstrations yesterday and protested peacefully to demand the country’s troops end their incursion into Bahrain.

Protesters chanted and held signs that called on the government to stay out of Bahrain, according to Ali Hassan, 26, who took part in the march. He said the march veered away from security forces to avoid a confrontation. A separate protest was held in the city of Awwamiya, according to Jasim al-Awwami, 27, who participated in it.

Regional unrest, which has toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, has reached Saudi Arabia’s neighbors Yemen, Oman and Bahrain, the island kingdom where a Sunni family rules the majority Shiite population. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi is fighting rebels who seek to end his four-decade rule.

Major General Mansour al-Turki, an Interior Ministry spokesman, disputed reports that security forces fired shots, either at protesters or in the air to disperse them.

“Security forces will not use gunfire as a means to enforce the law in any way, including preventing demonstrations or sit-ins,” he said in a telephone interview. “Gunfire is only used if policemen’s lives are threatened and the fire should be directed only at the source of fire on condition it does not endanger the lives of others.”

Pearl Roundabout

Bahrain’s Shiites make up about 70 percent of the population and many retain cultural and family ties with Iran, as well as with Shiites in Saudi Arabia, who are a minority of about 10 to 15 percent.

Saudi Shiites have been holding protests every Thursday and Friday for the past few weeks in towns and villages a short drive from the Bahrain causeway connecting the two countries.

Bahrain security forces drove protesters from their rallying point at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama yesterday leaving two demonstrators and two police officers dead.

The military imposed a curfew on parts of Bahrain from 4 p.m. until 4 a.m. and banned protests and public gatherings until further notice, an army spokesman said on state television.

Bahrain this week declared a three-month state of emergency after troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states arrived to help quell a month of protests driven by Shiites, who are calling for democracy and civil rights. Some groups have escalated their demands to include the overthrow of the Sunni rulers, the Al Khalifa family, and the creation of a republic.

Crude oil for April delivery rose $1.04, or 1.1 percent, to $98.22 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange at 4:41 p.m. yesterday. Oil is 20 percent higher than a year ago.

Protests are outlawed in Saudi Arabia, where the ruling family applies a strict version of Sunni Islam.

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