|Monday, 16 July 2012 12:53|
Russia and Saudi Arabia traded diplomatic blows at the weekend in a rare public spat that centred on deaths in the kingdom"s oil-rich eastern province and laid bare tensions between the two countries over Syria.
Riyadh condemned as "hostile" the expression of "great concern" by Konstantin Dolgov, Russia"s human rights envoy, over two deaths last week in what Moscow said were clashes between peaceful protesters and security forces in Saudi Arabia"s Qatif district.
The two countries have been on opposite sides of the Syrian crisis and have exchanged many accusations of interference, with Russia sending weapons to its ally President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi Arabia publicly backing the arming of rebel fighters.
Riyadh, which denies its security forces attacked demonstrators in Qatif, expressed "strong astonishment and surprise" about what it described as Russia"s "blatant and unjustified intervention ... in the internal affairs of the kingdom".
"The kingdom hopes that this strange comment was not intended to divert attention from the savage and ugly massacres that the Syrian regime is practising against its own people with support and backing from known parties that are obstructing any honest effort to end the bloodshed of the Syrian people," said a foreign ministry statement cited by SPA, the Saudi state news agency.
The Qatif deaths, the latest in a series in the area over the past year, came after the arrest of a high-profile Shia cleric accused of "sedition", according to the Saudi government.
Mr Dolgov said that people in the eastern coastal province, whose large population of Shia Muslims have long alleged discrimination by the Sunni monarchy in Riyadh, were demonstrating "against the existing, according to their opinion, impairment of the rights of the Shia community on the part of the authorities of the kingdom".
Russia"s government usually takes any chance it can get to needle Saudi Arabia, which it has accused of fomenting rebellion among the Muslim populations of Russia"s north Caucasus region and of not doing enough to rein in Islamic charities allegedly funding terrorists.
Russia has backed Shia minorities throughout the Middle East, partly due to its partnership with Shia Iran, and partly in an attempt to counter what it sees as US hegemony in the region.