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Saudi Arabia hit by sectarian violence as two killedBy Mendicant
The detention of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr triggered the worst unrest in the kingdom's Eastern Province for months, prompting fears that the long-marginalised region could erupt in open revolt.
Hundreds of men marched through the centre of the city of Qatif, chanting "Down, Down with the House of Saud" and "Death to al-Saud", a rare direct challenge to the kingdom's royal family.
Amateur video footage showed live gunshots being fired at apparently peaceful demonstrators. But even as some protesters rushed forward to help one wounded man, others resumed their chanting with even greater fervour.
Shots were also fired during a second protest in the nearby village of Awamiya, where Sheikh Nimr was reportedly shot in the thigh as he was arrested.
The cleric has emerged as a leading voice of Saudi Arabia's Shia minority, leading them in sporadic protests that have erupted in their eastern strongholds since last year. The most recent deaths, the first since February, bring to nine the total number of Shia killed in the Eastern Province region since the unrest began.
Saudi Arabia's interior ministry claimed that Sheikh Nimr – who has been detained and allegedly beaten twice in the past eight years – tried to evade capture and was wounded after his car collided with a security vehicle, prompting an exchange of fire.
"Security will not tolerate troublemakers who abuse the community and their nation," the ministry said in a statement.
The kingdom's ruling family has attempted to ward of a Saudi spring by announcing £840 million in new government spending.
But although this largesse has temporarily mollified Saudi Sunnis whose chief grievances revolve around poor schools and affordable housing, it has failed to pacify the marginalised Shia communities in the east, where the vast majority of the kingdom's oil is found.
Despite promises to respond to Shia grievances by giving the minority scholarships and greater access to government jobs, calls for the secession of Eastern Province have grown increasingly audible in recent months.
The unrest comes at a time of vulnerability for the ruling House of Saud.
With a series of deaths necessitating the naming of three crown princes in eight months and King Abdullah believed to be at least in his 90th year, the royal family's authority appears much less ironclad than it once was.
Rumours of extravagance and corruption by the ageing princes has become the subject of mockery of YouTube clips and open dissent is becoming more common, even outside the east.
March saw a riot by female students in the south-western city of Abha and there was even a "flash mob" protest at shopping mall in the capital Riyadh in June to demand release of political prisoners.