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Saudi plays down coup attempt fears, says 'toy drone' sparked security alert

Gunshots were heard for nearly one hour at a royal palace belonging to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on Saturday raising fears of a possible coup attempt, footage uploaded on social media on Saturday appears to show.

Official accounts of the event were that security officials had shot down a drone which was flying above the palace. The Riyadh police spokesman, quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA), said a security screening point noticed a small unauthorised recreational drone at 19:50 local time (16:50 GMT), leading security forces to deal with it according to their orders and instructions.

There were no casualties, and King Salman was not at his palace at the time, a senior Saudi official told Reuters.

"The king was at his farm in Diriya," the official said, naming another area of the capital.

But Saudi whistleblower Mujtahidd, who regularly leaks information on Saudi Arabia's domestic affairs, claims the shooting continued for "almost an hour". The motive of the attacks remains unclear, as the "attackers" disappeared shortly after. He went on to say seven people died in the shooting where the target was the crown prince himself.

Amateur footage circulating earlier on social media showed loud gunfire leading to speculation online about a possible coup attempt in the world's top oil exporter and questions about the whereabouts of the king and crown prince.

Reports also emerged which claimed that King Salman was evacuated to a military airbase as a result of the unrest.

Asked about the footage, the official said the drone had been shot down, and added that the government would introduce regulations for the use of recreational drones.

Saudi Arabia has witnessed a series of radical political changes over the past year under Bin Salman, who has spearheaded reforms to transform the economy and culturally.

The 32-year-old leader ousted his older cousin as crown prince last summer in a palace coup and then jailed dozens of top businessmen and senior royals, including billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal and National Guard head Prince Miteb Bin Abdullah, in an alleged "anti-corruption" sweep.

Most of the detainees have been released after reaching settlements with the government which saw them hand over up to 70 per cent of their assets to the government.

Space for criticism has also narrowed in recent months following the arrest of prominent clerics and activists in an apparent bid to silence dissent.

This has helped Bin Salman consolidate his grip on a country where power had been shared among senior princes for decades and religious figures exercised significant influence on policy.

But they have also fuelled speculation about a possible backlash against the crown prince, who remains popular with Saudi Arabia's burgeoning youth population.

Prince Mohammed returned earlier this month from a foreign tour that included the United States where he sought investments and support to curb Iranian influence in the region.

Riyadh and Tehran are locked in a decades-long struggle for supremacy that is being waged in several countries, including Yemen.

The Houthi armed group's official open source networks did not comment on the Saudi drone issue, indicating no apparent connection with the Yemen civil conflict.

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