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Police, who were lined up opposite the protesters, fired percussion bombs followed by gunfire, causing the crowd to scatter, a witness said. Other witnesses said the protesters threw Molotov cocktails and stones from rooftops on the security troops.

Mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia has struggled to stay ahead of the unrest that has led to the ouster of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders in recent weeks.

Last month, the ultraconservative Saudi government announced an unprecedented economic package worth an estimated $36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness.

At the same time, it reiterated that demonstrations are forbidden in the kingdom because they contradict Islamic laws and society’s values and said security forces were authorized to act against anyone violating the ban.

So far the demonstrations have been small, concentrated in the east among Shiites demanding the release of detainees. But activists have been emboldened by other uprisings have set up Facebook groups calling for protests in the capital, Riyadh, on Friday to demand democratic reforms.

One such group garnered more than 30,000 supporters. The group called the “Honein Revolution March 11” has listed a number of mosques in 17 Saudi cities for protesters to rally.

The group says it strives to have elected officials in Saudi Arabia, including the ruler.