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Oman police kill two protesters as sultan offers jobs

MUSCAT (Reuters) - Omani police fired rubber bullets at stone-throwing protesters demanding political reform on Sunday, killing two people, and demonstrators set government buildings and cars ablaze, witnesses said.

Oman's leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said attends the opening of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Doha in this December 3, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad/Files

Hours after the violence, Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos, gave an order to create 50,000 jobs for citizens in the Gulf Arab state of 2.7 million people, 70 percent of whom are nationals.

All detained protesters were later freed, state media said.

The trouble in the north-eastern port of Sohar, Oman’s main industrial centre, was a rare sign of discontent in the normally sleepy 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 told Reuters from Sohar. A third person was reported in critical condition after being shot.

Another witness said earlier 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 U.S. ally Oman, reshuffled his cabinet Saturday, a week after a small protest in the capital Muscat. He has ruled for four decades, exercising absolute power. Political parties are banned.

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“His Majesty Sultan Qaboos ... issued n an order to employ 50,000 citizens,” the state news agency ONA said Sunday. Each job-seeker would receive 150 rials (£241.95) a month, it said.

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

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. A Reuters journalist said a local office of the Ministry of Manpower was on fire, and witnesses said the main police station and another state building were burning.

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. Protesters have demanded the body be given legislative powers. Sunday, Qaboos ordered a ministerial committee to study increasing its authority.

Twenty-five of them, unhappy with the crackdown on the Sohar protest, met the government, one council member said. Sunday the sultan said some ministers would be appointed from the council in response to a demand by the protesters.

“There are no skirmishes now. There is calm at the moment,” said one witness, who gave his name only as Mohammed.

Helicopters circled over the town, and witnesses said troops had moved in but were not confronting protesters. “The army is neutral. They are in the middle,” said Mohammed, adding that at least eight people had been hurt, besides the two dead.

Security forces set up roadblocks on a main road between Muscat and Sohar, about 200 km (125 miles) from the capital. A spokeswoman for Sohar’s port said it was operating normally.

Protests also took place in the southern town of Salalah.

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 private sector workers by 43 percent to $520 per month.

Reporting by Saleh Al-Shaibany in Muscat and Cynthia Johnston in Dubai; Writing by Cynthia Johnston and Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Andrew Dobbie