SOHAR, Oman (AFP) – Protesters demanding jobs and reform remained on the streets of Oman Monday, a day after police killed at least one as the turmoil rocking the Arab world reached the normally calm Gulf sultanate.
The mostly unemployed demonstrators manned roadblocks in the key industrial area of Sohar, northwest of Muscat, despite the announcement of new benefits for the jobless and more powers for an elected advisory council.
The protesters have been keeping a vigil at Earth Roundabout, a key intersection on the main road to the capital, for three straight days, defying police efforts to remove them.
Security forces were nowhere to be seen on Monday after the previous day’s deadly violence.
A government spokesman cited by the state news agency ONA said Monday only one person was killed in the weekend confrontations between police and protesters.
In an interview with the pan-Arab television channel Al-Jazeera, Omani Health Minister Ahmed al-Saeedi later insisted only one person had been killed.
The minister added a second person had survived despite suffering a bullet wound to the stomach.
A security official had told AFP on Sunday police killed two people and wounded about five others when they fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators attacking a police station near the roundabout.
The protesters gave a higher death toll.
“I saw five killed at the police station yesterday,” said one of them, 25-year-old Abdullah al-Meqbali.
ONA news agency said rioting had begun at dawn on Saturday and continued on Sunday. It said several government and privately owned cars had been torched.
“Police and anti-riot squads confronted this group of wreckers in a bid to protect people and their property,” it reported on Sunday.
The protesters also set fire to the governor’s house in Sohar, more than 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the capital, and an AFP correspondent said a shopping mall had also been torched.
Oman is the latest country to be hit by a wave of protests in the Arab world that has already swept the veteran leaders of Tunisia and Egypt from power. 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.
On Monday, two military helicopters hovered over Earth Roundabout, provoking demonstrators who began chanting “Allah is Greater”.
Mohammed Mohammed, who said his brother Abdullah Mohammed, 36, was killed on Sunday by police, told AFP the family would not bury his brother until the killers are put on trial.
“We will not take the body (from the morgue). We want to know the killer, and the reasons behind the killing… and we want him to be punished according to law,” he told AFP.
Mohammed said his brother was killed by live fire and not rubber bullets.
Angry protesters on Monday raised calls to attack the port of Sohar, but clerics trying to calm demonstrators urged them to resort to vandalism.
In a move towards addressing their grievances, Qaboos announced 50,000 new jobs would be provided 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.
For decades Oman was an isolated country living on the margins of the modern world, but the 2010 UN Human Development Report released in November said it had made the most improvement since 1970 out of 135 countries.
It is a non-OPEC oil producer.
The sultanate lies on the strategic Strait of Hormuz and adjoining Gulf of Oman, through which much of the world’s oil supplies pass, and is a key Western ally in the region.