Two men were shot dead during renewed Shiite protests in Saudi Arabia, as police exchanged fire with gunmen who "infiltrated" the funeral of another protester, the interior ministry said Thursday.
It said the new deaths late Wednesday brought to four the death toll of protests that began on Monday in the Eastern Province, while nine others were wounded, including two policemen and a woman, according to a statement carried by SPA state news agency.
"These casualties were sustained during exchange of fire with unknown criminals who infiltrated citizens and opened fire from residential areas," it said.
The ministry claimed that "a number of security checkpoints and vehicles have since Monday been increasingly coming under gunfire attacks in the Qatif region by assailants motivated by foreign orders."
"Security forces have been exercising self restraint as much as possible," it said, adding that two citizens were killed and six others, including two policemen "who received gun shots," were wounded.
"Several incidents of fire exchange took place during the funeral of one of those ... which caused the death of two citizens and wounded three others," it added.
Medics had confirmed late Wednesday reports by witnesses and activists reports that two Shiites were shot dead during the funeral.
Ali Abdullah Al Qarayrees, 26, from Awamiya town, and Munib al-Sayyed Al-Adnan, 20, from Shweika, "were shot by security forces during demonstrations," witnesses said.
Medics had said Ali al-Felfel, 24, died Monday of gun wounds after police opened fire at protesters who had taken to the streets in response to the death of 19-year-old Nasser al-Mheishi.
The circumstances surrounding Mheishi's death were not clear.
Protests were renewed Wednesday in Qatif while local dignitaries said the province's governor, Prince Mohammed bin Fahd, promised that the interior ministry will probe the death of two Shiites.
Cleric Sheikh Hussein al-Soweileh, who was part of a delegation of Shiite dignitaries from Qatif who met on Tuesday with the governor, said the latter "has asked us to bring calm to the street, mainly as (the annual Shiite commemoration period of) Ashura approaches."
The interior ministry statement warned Thursday of a "deterrent response to those who consider breaking the law, and that security forces have been authorised to deal with the situation."
"The interior ministry realises that the aim of those trouble-makers is to cause futile confrontations between the people and security forces, as ordered by their masters abroad," it said in an apparent reference to Shiite Iran which champions the cause of Shiite minorities in Arab countries.
The ministry urged the "wise" of Qatif to control "those who are misled to avoid innocent casualties."
In October, 14 people, including 11 policemen, were wounded during clashes with security forces and demonstrators in the same area.
At the time, the interior ministry in the Sunni-ruled kingdom blamed "outlaws" for the violence and hinted at Iranian involvement in instigating the clashes.
The overwhelming majority of the estimated two million Saudi Shiites live in Eastern Province, which neighbours Bahrain where authorities, supported by Saudi-led Gulf troops, earlier this year crushed a Shiite-led protest.
Shiites in oil-rich Saudi Arabia often complain of being marginalised.