SOHAR: Omani protesters demanding political reforms blocked roads to a main export port and refinery on Monday and a doctor said the death toll from clashes with police in the Gulf Arab sultanate had risen to six.
Hundreds of protesters blocked the entrance to the industrial area of the northern coastal town of Sohar, which includes a port, refinery and Aluminium factory. They pushed back four army vehicles that had been observing the scene.
"We want to see the benefit of our oil wealth distributed evenly to the population," one protester yelled over a loudhailer near the port. "We want to see a scale-down of expatriates in Oman so more jobs can be created for Omanis."
The unrest in Sohar, Oman’s main industrial centre, was a rare outbreak of discontent in the normally sleepy sultanate ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said for four decades, and follows a wave of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.
Oman’s government, trying to calm tensions, promised on Sunday to create more jobs and give benefits to job seekers.
A main supermarket in Sohar was burning on Monday after being looted, witnesses said. Protesters stormed the town’s police station on Sunday to try to free detainees before burning it. They had also set two state offices alight.
As well as those demonstrating outside the industrial area, hundreds more were at the main Globe Roundabout, angry after police opened fire on Sunday at stone-throwing protesters demanding political reforms, jobs and better pay.
Graffiti scrawled on a statue said: "The people are hungry". Another message read: "No to oppression of the people".
Nearby, sidewalks were smashed and office windows broken. Troops deployed around the town but were not intervening to disperse protesters.
"There are no jobs, there’s no freedom of opinion. The people are tired and people want money. People want to end corruption," said Ali Al-Mazroui, 30, who is unemployed.
Sohar oil exports unaffected
Marine traffic and exports of refined oil products from Sohar’s port, which ships 160,000 barrels per day (bpd) of a range of products, were continuing although the flow of trucks into the port was blocked, a port spokeswoman said.
"It is true the protesters are making a very non-violent protest," the spokeswoman told Reuters. "Marine traffic in and out is not affected at the moment."
A doctor at Sohar’s main hospital said the death toll had risen to six.
Witnesses had earlier put it at two; some saying police had fired live ammunition, while others said they had used rubber bullets.
"We have received a total of six deaths yesterday from the protests in Sohar," the emergency doctor at the state hospital in Sohar said, without saying how they had died.
The state news agency, quoting an unnamed government source, said only one person had died in the clashes and that reports of additional dead were "devoid of truth".
Sultan Qaboos, who exercises absolute power in a country where political parties are banned, shuffled his cabinet on Saturday, a week after a small protest in the capital Muscat.
The government, under pressure over its response to the Sohar protests, pledged on Sunday to create 50,000 more public sector jobs and hand out unemployment benefits of $390 a month.
Mostly wealthy Gulf Arab countries have stepped up 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.
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 ministerial committee to study increasing its authority.