Fri Jul 21, 2017 05:18PM
Saudi police gather as Shia protesters, unseen, chant slogans during a demonstration in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, March 11, 2011. (Photo by AP)
Saudi police gather as Shia protesters, unseen, chant slogans during a demonstration in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, March 11, 2011. (Photo by AP)

The Saudi Interior Ministry says three men have been shot dead in an exchange of gunfire with regime forces in the Shia-populated Qatif province.

The ministry said in a statement on Friday that the trio, two Saudis and a Bahraini national, lost their lives in the gunfight with police in the city of Saihat last week.

According to the statement, the exchange of fire occurred when the security forces approached three wanted men in their vehicle in Saihat on July 14.

"When they were surrounded and asked to surrender, they started shooting in a random way," it added.

The men were wanted for their alleged involvement in the murder of at least eight soldiers, armed robberies and weapons trafficking among other crimes.

The Shia-populated Eastern Province has been the scene of peaceful demonstrations since February 2011. Protesters have been demanding reforms, freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, and an end to economic and religious discrimination against the oil-rich region.

The protests have been met with a heavy-handed crackdown by the regime. Security forces have ramped up security measures across the province.

Over the past years, Riyadh has also redefined its anti-terrorism laws so as to also target activism.

In January 2016, Saudi authorities executed Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who was an outspoken critic of the policies of the regime in Riyadh. Nimr had been arrested in Qatif in 2012.