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DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi security forces killed three suspected militants who shot at their patrol vehicles last week in the kingdom's eastern Qatif province, the interior ministry said on Friday.

The oil-producing region is home to a large Shi'ite population and has been a flashpoint for clashes between the Sunni Muslim government's security forces and Shi'ites protesting against what they say is widespread discrimination.

Shi'ite protests and deadly militant attacks on security forces have escalated since Nimr al-Nimr, a Shi'ite cleric convicted of inciting violence, was executed a year ago.

Islamic State has also claimed attacks on Saudi security forces as well as bombings and shootings targeting Shi'ites.

Last week's attack occurred when security personnel approached three wanted men in their vehicle in the town of Sehat, a statement carried by the state news agency SPA said.

"When they were surrounded and asked to surrender, they started shooting in a random way," the statement said.

SPA said the men's suspected crimes included killing at least eight soldiers, armed robberies and weapons smuggling.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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Reuters