A Saudi police officer checks cars at a security checkpoint in Saudi Arabia's eastern Gulf coast town of Qatif November 25, 2011. (Photo:Reuters)
Saudi security forces have withdrawn from Shiite villages in Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia following unrest last week in which four people were killed, witnesses said on Monday.
The move appears aimed at reducing friction with the kingdom's minority Shiites on the first day of Ashura, a 10-day commemoration of the 7th-century killing of the highly revered Imam Hussein.
Security forces pulled out overnight Sunday from Shweika and Awamiya villages in the Eastern Province, scene of intense clashes between protesters and security forces of the Sunni-dominated kingdom, witnesses and rights activists said.
"Armoured vehicles transporting anti-riot forces towards Dammam city have pulled out and checkpoints have been lifted," said one witness, after those forces were brought in as reinforcements during demonstrations.
Three Shiites were shot dead last week during protests triggered by the suspicious death of a fourth Shiite near a government security checkpoint.
The interior ministry said security forces had come under fire from gunmen operating on "foreign orders," hinting at involvement by Saudi's arch rival Iran. The ministry said two policemen were wounded in the clashes.
Saudi's Eastern province is home to the majority of the kingdom's Shiite population of around two million, who represent around 10 percent of Saudis.
In March, Shiites in the oil-rich Eastern Province demonstrated in sympathy with fellow Shiites in neighbouring Bahrain, after security forces clamped down on pro-democracy protests led by that country's majority Shiite community.
Qatif protesters were back on the street in October demanding the release of those arrested in March.
Last week, they demonstrated demanding the release of prisoners.