Omani troops battle protesters

March 2, 2011 - 0:0

SOHAR, Oman (Reuters) – Omani troops fired into the air near a northern port on Tuesday to clear a fourth day of protests by Omanis demanding jobs and political reforms, wounding one person in the town of Sohar, witnesses said.

“We were about 200 to 300 people on the road. The army started shooting in the air,” one protester in Sohar said, declining to be named. “Many people ran. The man who was shot came to calm the army down.”
The crowd dispersed before regrouping again near the port, the witnesses said, and the troops pulled back.
The unrest in Sohar, Oman's main industrial center, was a rare outbreak of discontent in the normally calm Persian Gulf state ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said for four decades, and follows a wave of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.
The sultan, trying to calm tensions, on Sunday promised 50,000 jobs, unemployment benefits of $390 a month and to study widening the power of a quasi-parliamentary advisory council.
In Sohar after the confrontation, traffic flowed freely into the port, which exports 160,000 barrels per day of refined oil products, despite the presence of around 150 protesters. Protesters had blocked the entrance to the port on Monday.
Omani troops had been deployed in the city beforehand but until Tuesday had refrained from intervening to stop protests.
At the nearby Globe Roundabout, center of the Sohar protests that have drawn up to 2,000 people, five armored vehicles watched the square but no protesters could be seen.
As many as six people were killed in Sohar on Sunday when police opened fire on stone-throwing demonstrators after failing to disperse them with batons and tear gas. A doctor and nurses at a state hospital said six people died but the health minister put the toll at one.
The U.S. State Department said on Monday, the same day Sohar protests spread to the capital Muscat, that Washington was encouraging restraint and dialogue in Oman.
Modest reforms
Sultan Qaboos, who exercises absolute power in a country where political parties are banned, gave more independence to the public prosecutor on Tuesday and ordered the creation of an independent consumer protection watchdog to monitor prices.
The steps were the latest in a series of modest moves by Oman and came after Sultan Qaboos reshuffled his cabinet on Saturday, a week after a small protest in the capital Muscat gave the first hint that Arab discontent could reach the state.
“We see the two royal decrees as part of the new reforms ... Next we want him to consider an elected government and a constitution change,” said Zakaria al-Mharmi, an intellectual who has been a prominent face in Muscat protests.
Mostly wealthy Persian Gulf Arab countries have pledged billions of dollars in state benefits and some offered modest reforms to appease their populations following popular unrest that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and is threatening Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's grip on power.
Protesters in Oman have stopped short of calling for a change of government, unlike in neighboring Yemen where protesters want the president to go and in fellow Persian Gulf Arab state Bahrain where protesters want the prime minister sacked.
Oman is a non-OPEC oil exporter which pumps around 850,000 bpd, and has strong military and political ties to Washington.
Sultan Qaboos appoints the cabinet and in 1992 introduced an elected advisory Shura Council. Protesters have demanded the council be given legislative powers and on Sunday Qaboos ordered a committee to study increasing its authority.