DAMMAM, Saudi Arabia — Three people were injured when police opened fire during a protest in eastern Saudi Arabia on Thursday, according to a witness and a Saudi official.
The witness, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by authorities, said police at first fired over protesters' heads but then began shooting directly at them during a march in central Qatif, a predominantly Shiite town in oil-rich Eastern Province. It was not immediately clear whether the bullets were metal or rubber.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said police fired over the heads of protesters after demonstrators attacked them, the Reuters news agency reported. He did not say how the injuries were caused but said one of those hurt was a policeman.
At the time of the shooting, "the police were maybe 50 meters away" from the protesters, who were calling for the release of prisoners, the witness said.
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"The guy, he goes talking only, and directly the police shot at him by gun, and all the people started running," the witness said.
The witness said he later visited two of the victims in the hospital. An 18-year-old man who was shot in the hand and a 24-year-old man who was shot in the leg. A nurse told the witness that a third man had been shot in the abdomen.
Larger protests are planned for today across Saudi Arabia. Demonstrators are seeking reforms that include a say in government, better economic opportunities and, in the Shiite-heavy eastern area, an end to what protesters call systematic discrimination by the Sunni monarchy.
Shiites are a minority in Saudi Arabia, making up 10 to 15 percent of the population.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said at a news conference in Jiddah on Wednesday that the country would not tolerate protests and called for dialogue instead. Earlier in the week, the country's council of senior clerics said public protests were un-Islamic.
That has not dissuaded protest organizers, who plan protests in Riyadh, Qatif and elsewhere today, a day of prayer and the largest planned day of protests in the region over the past two months of unrest.
Small protests have been taking place for weeks in Qatif and in nearby Shiite towns. Such demonstrations are highly unusual in the strictly run country.