Omani forces disperse protesters peacefully

AFP , Tuesday 1 Mar 2011

Omani forces manage to disperse protesters in a relatively peaceful manner on Tuesday, following clashes on Sunday

A broken flag post and slogans are seen on a monument at the main Sohar roundabout in Sohar, Oman, Monday 18 February 2011. (AP)

Omani forces in tanks dispersed demonstrators Tuesday who were blocking the port in the Sohar industrial city and the coastal road to the capital Muscat as protests erupted in other parts of the country, AFP reporters and witnesses said.

The operation went peacefully and Omani forces drove away protesters who had been keeping vigil at the Earth Roundabout, a landmark intersection in Sohar where clashes erupted Sunday killing at least one protester.

It came a day after the United States urged Oman to show restraint and press ahead with reforms in the strategic Gulf ally on the busy Strait of Hormuz oil shipping lane.

The security forces initially pushed away protesters from the main coastal highway that links Muscat to Sohar, 200 kilometres (125 miles) northwest from the capital.

But protesters continued to deploy trucks blocking access from the Sohar port, Oman's second largest, to nearby aluminium and petrochemical factories, the reporter said.

Armoured vehicles deployed at the Earth Roundabout, where protesters had kept vigil for a third consecutive night.

The protesters held up signs demanding jobs and salary increases and also called for ministers who they accuse of corruption to be put on trial. Some also waved Omani flags and carried portraits of Sultan Qaboos.

Protests were also reported on Tuesday in the southern port of Salalah and the northwestern oasis region of Buraimi, witnesses said.

In Salalah some 200 people demonstrated demonstrated outside the office of the governor of Dhofar province, demanding an increase in wages and benefits, while dozens of protesters staged a similar rally in Buraimi.

Members of the Majlis Ash-Shura, or Consultative Council, and intellectuals were due to hold a sit-in later Tuesday afternoon in Muscat to demand the resignation of some ministers, one of the organisers told AFP.

Normally placid Oman is the latest country to be hit by the wave of popular protests that has rattled several Arab countries and swept from power the veteran leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

Mass demonstrations also threaten the regimes of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.

On Monday, hundreds of demonstrators stormed a police station in Sohar and police responded by firing tear gas, an AFP reporter said. Protesters also set fire to the governor's house and torched a shopping mall.

State news agency ONA said rioting had begun at dawn on Saturday and continued on Sunday that several several government and privately owned cars had been torched.

There were conflicting reports on the death toll from Sunday's clashes with officials insisting that one person only was killed while protesters saying that as many as five died.

The Omani protesters insist they are not challenging the rule of Sultan Qaboos, who has been in power since 1970, but are merely calling for jobs and reform.

The violence has prompted the United States and human rights watchdog Amnesty International to call for restraint.

"We have been in touch with the government and encouraged restraint and to resolve differences through dialogue," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Monday in Washington's first reaction to the unrest.

Amnesty urged Oman, which it said has "used excessive force", to rein in its security forces and order "an immediate independent investigation", in a statement Monday.

"The government must respect the right of people to engage in peaceful protest and ensure that they can do so without fear or threat," said Malcolm Smart, the director of the group's regional programme.

In a move towards addressing the grievances of the protesters, Qaboos has announced a series of moves, including the creation of 50,000 new jobs and a monthly allowance of 150 riyals (390 dollars) for registered job seekers.

Qaboos also ordered the formation of a ministerial committee to put together proposals to meet calls for more powers for Oman's elected consultative council.

Oman guards with Iran the strategic Strait of Hormuz through which 40 percent of the world's oil supply passes and Muscat is a key Western ally in the region.

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