Shooting in eastern Saudi after cleric's death sentence

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Demonstrators gather in Qatif, in the Shiite-populated east of Saudi Arabia, on July 8, 2012

Demonstrators gather in Qatif, in the Shiite-populated east of Saudi Arabia, on July 8, 2012 (AFP Photo/)

Riyadh (AFP) - Gunfire aimed at security forces set fire to an oil pipeline in eastern Saudi Arabia Saturday, official media said, three days after a dissident local Shiite cleric was sentenced to death.

Officers in the Sunni-dominated kingdom "came under heavy gunfire from an unknown source, which led to a limited fire breaking out on a subsidiary oil pipeline," the official SPA news agency said.

The attack occurred at 2:00 am (1100 GMT Friday), the report cited the Eastern Province police spokesman as saying, adding that the fire had been extinguished.

The incident is similar to one last September in Awamiya, when gunfire also targeted police and triggered a pipeline fire.

The community has been the scene of periodic clashes involving security forces since demonstrations began in the east three years ago.

Eastern Province is home to the bulk of oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, the top producer in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

On Wednesday, a court convicted Nimr al-Nimr of sedition and sentenced him to death.

Nimr was a driving force behind demonstrations against the authorities that erupted in 2011 alongside a Shiite-led protest movement in neighbouring Bahrain.

The court also found Nimr guilty of seeking "foreign meddling" in the country, a reference to predominantly Shiite Iran, of "disobeying" the kingdom's rulers and taking up arms against security forces.

Nimr's family in Awamiya and the coastal community of Qatif accused the court of ignoring the sheikh's "peaceful and non-violent approach," saying the case had caused "social and political discontent".

They called for a dialogue with officials, "out of concern for our dear country".

Amnesty International said the "appalling" verdict is part of a campaign by the authorities "to crush all dissent".

Most of Saudi Arabia's estimated two million Shiites live in the east, and many complain of marginalisation.

After the initial protests, tension rose further in July 2012 when security forces arrested Nimr, and discontent has continued to simmer.