SOHAR, Oman (Reuters) - Omani troops fired into the air near a port on Tuesday to clear a fourth day of protests by people demanding jobs and political reforms, wounding one person in the town of Sohar, witnesses said.
“We were about 200 to 300 people on the road. The army started shooting in the air,” one protester in Sohar said, declining to be named. “Many people ran. The man who was shot (had) come to calm the army down.”
The crowd dispersed before regrouping again near the port IN north Oman, the witnesses said, and the troops pulled back.
The unrest in Sohar, Oman’s main industrial center, was a rare outbreak of discontent in the normally tranquil Gulf state, ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said for four decades, following a wave of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world.
Trying to calm tensions, the sultan on Sunday promised 50,000 jobs, unemployment benefits of $390 a month and to study widening the power of a quasi-parliamentary advisory council.
In Sohar after the confrontation, traffic flowed freely into the port, which exports 160,000 barrels per day of refined oil products, despite the presence of around 150 protesters. Protesters had blocked the entrance to the port on Monday.
Omani troops had been deployed in the city beforehand but until Tuesday had refrained from intervening to stop protests.
At the nearby Globe Roundabout, center of the Sohar protests that have drawn up to 2,000 people, five armored vehicles watched the square but no demonstrators could be seen.
Later in the capital Muscat, about 200 people gathered in a silent protest in front of the building of the Shura Council, the elected advisory body, asking for jobs and reforms.
The carried placards reading “We want jobs,” “We want higher salaries” and “We want freedom of the press,” asking the council to inform the sultan about their demands.
About 2,000 people also gathered at a Muscat mosque to voice support for Sultan Qaboos and the government, blaming violence during this week’s demonstrations on protesters, residents said.
Sohar Industrial Port Company said on Tuesday that Western management had returned to Sohar from Muscat, where they had been moved to on Monday as a precautionary measure. The Dutch families of the management will remain in Muscat, however.
The harbor is accessible again, both by sea and land, and ships have started arriving again in the port, where loading and unloading has resumed, the company said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department said on Monday, the same day Sohar protests spread to Muscat, that Washington was encouraging restraint and dialogue in Oman, strategically important because it faces arch-U.S. adversary Iran across the Arabian Sea.
Oman has strong military and political ties with the United States and is a non-OPEC oil exporter that pumps around 850,000 barrels per day.
As many as six people were killed in Sohar on Sunday when police opened fire on stone-throwing demonstrators after failing to scatter them with batons and tear gas.
A doctor and nurses at a state hospital said six people died but the health minister put the toll at one.
Sultan Qaboos, who exercises absolute power in a country where political parties are banned, gave more independence to the public prosecutor on Tuesday and ordered the creation of an independent consumer protection watchdog to monitor prices.
The steps were the latest in a series of modest moves by Oman and came after the sultan reshuffled his cabinet on Saturday, a week after a small protest in Muscat gave the first hint that Arab discontent could reach the state.
“We see the two royal decrees as part of the new reforms ... Next we want him to consider an elected government and a constitution change,” said Zakaria al-Mharmi, an intellectual who has been a prominent face in the Muscat protests.
Mostly wealthy Gulf Arab countries have pledged billions of dollars in state benefits and some offered modest reforms to appease their populations influenced by popular unrest that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and is threatening Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s grip on power.
Protesters in Oman have stopped short of calling for a change of government, unlike in neighboring Yemen, where protesters want the president to go, and in fellow Gulf Arab state Bahrain, where protesters want the prime minister sacked.
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 committee to study increasing its authority.
Additional reporting by Saleh Al-Shaibany; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Louise Ireland