RIYADH • Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric alongside dozens of Al-Qaeda members yesterday, signalling intolerance of home-grown militancy and minority Shi'ite Muslim violence, while stirring a rise in sectarian tensions across the region.
Most of the 47 executed were convicted of Al-Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago, but four, including prominent cleric Nimr al-Nimr, were Shi'ite Muslims accused of shooting policemen during anti-government protests in recent years.
Iran's Foreign Ministry has strongly condemned the execution. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said the Saudi government should await the repercussions of such acts, "as they will pay dearly for their policies".
In Bahrain, where the Shi'ite sect forms the majority, the police fired tear gas at several dozen people protesting against the executions in the Shi'ite village of Abu-Saiba, west of the capital Manama.
Bahraini activists have called for protests in the Sunni-ruled island kingdom, a sign that Nimr's death may inflame already raging sectarian tensions in the Middle East.
Yemen's Houthi Shi'ite group described Nimr as a "holy warrior".
The Lebanese militia Hizbollah said Riyadh had made "a grave mistake".
The execution will mark the end of Saudi Arabia's government, said Mr Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's former prime minister and a prominent politician with ties to Iran.
The executions in Saudi Arabia took place in 12 cities, four prisons using firing squads and the others beheading.
The bodies were then hung from gibbets in the most severe form of punishment available in the kingdom's Syariah law.
Saudi police raised security in a district where the Shi'ite sect is a majority in case of protests, residents said.
The executions seemed mostly aimed at discouraging Saudis from joining local militants after bombings and shootings in Saudi Arabia over the past year killed dozens and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group called on followers in the kingdom to stage attacks.
The simultaneous execution of 47 people on security grounds was the biggest mass execution for such offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 rebels who seized Mecca's Grand Mosque in 1979.
The 43 Sunnis executed included several prominent Al-Qaeda figures, including those convicted of responsibility for attacks on Western compounds, government buildings and diplomatic missions that killed hundreds from 2003 to 2006.
In a statement issued on state television and other official media, Saudi's Interior Ministry named the dead men and listed crimes that included both involvement in attacks and embracing militant ideology.
Mr Mustafa Alani, a security analyst close to the Interior Ministry, commented: "There is a huge popular pressure on the government to punish those people. It included all the leaders of Al-Qaeda, all the ones responsible for shedding blood. It sends a message."
Analysts have speculated that the execution of the four Shi'ites was partly to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia's majority Sunni Muslims that the government did not differentiate between political violence committed by members of the two sects.
Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh appeared on television soon after to describe the executions as just.
The executions are Saudi Arabia's first this year. At least 157 people were put to death last year, a big increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.