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2 killed as revolutionary fire singes Oman

Omani police fired rubber bullets at stone throwing protesters demanding political reform today, killing two people, and demonstrators set government buildings and cars ablaze, witnesses said.

world Updated: Feb 27, 2011 22:37 IST

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.

The trouble in the town of Sohar, Oman's main industrial centre, was a rare sign of discontent in the normally sleepy Gulf Arab 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, who declined to be named, told Reuters from Sohar. A third person was reported in critical condition after being shot. Another witness said the police had used live ammunition, but that could not immediately be confirmed.

Troops were deployed in the area, but did not intervene, witnesses said.

Sultan Qaboos bin Said, trying to ease tensions in US ally Oman, reshuffled his cabinet on Saturday, a week after a small protest in the capital Muscat.

He has ruled for four decades, exercising absolute power. Political parties are banned. 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. Twenty five of them, unhappy with the authorities' handling of the Sohar protests, met with the government to discuss their concerns, one council member said.

Police station attacked

Protesters in Sohar, after initial clashes, marched to the town's police station with petrol and matches, hoping to storm it to free comrades detained after protests on Saturday. Police tried to halt them, firing in the air and using tear gas. The protesters retreated without freeing any detainees, who were reported to have already been moved to Muscat.

"The security forces pushed the protesters out of the police station," said one witness, who gave his name only as Mohammed. "There are no skirmishes now. There is calm at the moment."

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, apart from the two dead.

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

Protests also took place in the southern town of Salalah where a small number of demonstrators have camped out since Friday near the office of a provincial governor.

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

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 workers in the private sector by 43% to $520 per month. There is no official unemployment rate.