Oman forces disperse protesters peacefully

SOHAR, OMAN - Omani forces in tanks dispersed on Tuesday protesters who were blocking the port in the Sohar industrial city and the coastal road to the capital Muscat, an AFP reporter 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.

On Monday, hundreds of demonstrators stormed a police station and police responded by firing tear gas, an AFP reporter said, adding that 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. It said 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.

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.

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.

In the first US reaction to the unrest in Oman, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said on Monday: "We have been in touch with the government and encouraged restraint and to resolve differences through dialogue."

In a move towards addressing the grievances of the protesters, Qaboos announced 50,000 new jobs would be created for Omani citizens and benefits provided for the unemployed.

A royal decree carried by ONA on Sunday said a monthly allowance of 150 riyals (390 dollars) would be given to each registered job seeker.

Qaboos also ordered the formation of a ministerial committee, headed by palace affairs minister Sayed Ali bin Hmud al-Busaidi, 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.