RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi security forces on Tuesday shot dead two suspected members of an armed group that killed at least eight people in an overnight attack on Shi‘ite Muslims marking an important religious anniversary, the Interior Ministry reported.
Two security officers also died and two were wounded in the gunbattle in the town of Buraida, north of the capital Riyadh, in which the two suspected militants were killed, the official Saudi Press Agency said, citing an Interior Ministry statement.
The late Monday assault on a Shi‘ite gathering in al-Ahsa district may further fray relations between Sunnis and Shi‘ites across the Middle East because it coincided with the annual Ashoura commemoration of Shi‘ite Islam.
Sectarian bloodshed has spread across the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and has resonance in Saudi Arabia - the world’s No. 1 oil exporter and a strategic U.S. ally - where some leading clerics of its official, austere Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam regard Shi‘ism as heretical.
Interior Ministry security spokesman Major General Mansour Turki told Reuters: “We cannot confirm we are done with the security operations. We have dealt with what the preliminary information provided us with. But these arrests may lead to more information that opens up new areas of operations.”
Al-Ahsa is one of Saudi Arabia’s main centers of minority Shi‘ites, who like co-religionists around the world at Ashoura are commemorating the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein with public ceremonies and processions.
In Riyadh, an official council of top Sunni Muslim scholars condemned the attack as a “vicious assault and a heinous crime whose perpetrators deserve the harshest religious penalties”.
Of the Buraida clash, the ministry said: “The presence of a number of people suspected of involvement in commissioning the terrorist crime was noted, and that they gathered in rest areas in the al-Mualimin district of Buraida in Qassim Province.”
It added that the gunfight started when the suspects fired automatic weapons at police attempting to arrest them, leading to an exchange of fire. It named the dead security officers as Captain Mohammed al-Onaizi and Corporal Turki al-Rashid.
Earlier, Dubai-based al-Arabiya television reported that security forces who had been hunting suspects in the al-Ahsa attack clashed with and killed “a wanted man” at a rest area in Qassim province. A member of the kingdom’s emergency forces also died in the clashes, it said.
The Arabiya report could not immediately be confirmed and it was not immediately clear whether it was reporting the same incident. But the interior ministry said a total of 15 people had been arrested over the attack in al-Dalwah village.
“As a group of citizens was leaving a building ... three masked men opened fire at them with machine guns and pistols,” the spokesman was cited as saying by state news agency SPA.
The Interior Ministry told Reuters that the death toll from Monday night’s attack had risen to eight from five, including one person found shot dead in a car in a neighboring village.
On a Facebook page calling itself “The Revolutionary Movement of Qatif,” Shi‘ite activists posted a video of a young boy in hospital with a bandaged foot describing Monday’s attack with a limp voice. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the video.
“The prayer had finished. Me, Mahdi, Mohammed and Amer were leaving. We saw him carrying a gun and coming from the side road. Then he shot at Mohammed, Hassan, then me and Mahdi. Then there was more shooting. It finished and later they showed me the shell casings,” he said.
An onlooker said: “May God heal you.”
Qatif, another center of the Saudi Shi‘ite minority alongside Al-Ahsa, has been the focal point of anti-government demonstrations in support of Shi‘ites who complain of discrimination. The Saudi authorities deny this.
A local rights activist said that the shooting victims on Monday were mostly young men who were standing at the entrance of a local gathering place, known as a Huseiniya, where the commemorative ceremony was taking place.
“It seems the criminals were in a hurry and opened fire on youngsters at the entrance and fled,” Ali al-Bahrani, a local rights activist, told Reuters by telephone.
Minority Shi‘ites say they are discriminated against in seeking educational opportunities or government employment in Saudi Arabia, and that they are referred to disparagingly in textbooks and by some officials and state-funded clerics.
They also complain of curbs on setting up places of worship and marking Shi‘ite holidays, and say Qatif and al-Ahsa receive less state funding than Sunni communities of equivalent size.
Additional reporting by Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Writing by William Maclean and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Mark Heinrich