Saudis arrest protesters in eastern Shiite region

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi authorities detained a number of protesters Friday in the country's restive eastern Shiite region after they set tires ablaze during an overnight rally, the kingdom's official news agency reported.

The arrests took place in the city of Qatif, where members of the Shiite minority have been clashing with police over the past year, demanding greater rights and an end to what they say is discrimination by the Sunni rulers.

Shiite news agency Rasid says police fired live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the crowd, wounding several of the protesters, who numbered in the hundreds and had been demonstrating since late on Thursday.

The SPA report didn't say how many people were arrested but described those detained as "instigators of riots," citing an unidentified spokesman of the Interior Ministry.

Among the detained was a wanted fugitive, Mohammed al-Shakhouri, the report said. The Interior Ministry spokesman said he was among the 23 most wanted men in Qatif.

Rasid said al-Shakhouri himself was injured before he was captured.

The Saudi government has tried to portray the protests as the result of "foreign efforts" to destabilize the kingdom. Earlier this year, it released the names of 23 people it said were taking part in confrontations with security forces for the purpose of serving "foreign agendas" and offered rewards to those who turn them in.

As uprisings against autocratic rulers began to sweep the Arab world last year, small protests were held in eastern Saudi Arabia but they were largely quelled. Tensions however remain.

The oil-rich monarchy fears Shiite-led protests could escalate as they have in neighboring Bahrain, where a Shiite majority is ruled by a Sunni king.

Shiites make up 10 percent of the 23 million Saudi citizens.