Two killed in Oman violence


Omani police fired rubber bullets at stone-throwing protesters demanding political reform today, killing two people, and demonstrators set government buildings and cars ablaze, witnesses said.

The trouble in the town of Sohar, Oman's main industrial centre, was a rare sign of discontent in the normally sleepy Gulf Arab sultanate and followed a wave of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.

Witnesses said more than 2,000 protesters had gathered for a second day in a square in Sohar demanding political reforms, more jobs and better pay before police tried to disperse them, first with tear gas and batons and then rubber bullets.

“Two people have died after police fired rubber bullets into the crowd," one witness, who declined to be named, said from Sohar. A third person was reported in critical condition after being shot.

Another witness said the police had used live ammunition, but that could not immediately be confirmed. Troops deployed in the area, but did not intervene, witnesses said.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said, trying to ease tensions in US ally Oman, reshuffled his cabinet on Saturday, a week after a small protest in the capital Muscat. He has ruled for four decades, exercising absolute power. Political parties are banned.

Oman's state news agency said riots in Sohar had destroyed public and private property but did not mention any deaths.

"Police and anti-riot units moved against this subversive group to protect citizens and their property, which led to some injuries," the news agency said. Smoke billowed over a square that has been the centre of protests.

Oman is a non-Opec oil exporter with strong military and political ties to Washington. Sultan Qaboos deposed his father in a 1970 palace coup to end the country's isolation and use its oil revenue for modernisation. He appoints the cabinet and in 1992 introduced an elected advisory Shura Council with 84 members.

Mostly wealthy Gulf Arab countries have stepped up measures to appease their populations following popular unrest that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

Last week about 300 Omanis demanded political reforms and better pay in a peaceful protest in Muscat. Protesters in Oman have so far avoided calling for regime change.

In mid-February, the sultanate increased the salary for national workers in the private sector by 43 per cent to $520 per month. There is no official unemployment rate.