SOHAR // Omani police fired rubber bullets into a crowd of hundreds of stone-throwing protesters demanding political reform, killing two people and wounding at least eight, witnesses said.
The demonstrators, after gathering in a square for a second day to call for jobs, the resignation of long-serving cabinet ministers and an end to corruption, advanced on a police station to free two fellow demonstrators who were being held there.
Police hurled tear gas into the throng of protesters to disperse them, then fired into the air before shooting rubber bullets directly at the demonstrators, said a witness, who declined to be identified.
The witness, who works at the city’s port, said: “I saw many of them running and falling. Two died on the ground.”
The crowd scattered but quickly regrouped and torched the police station, the office of the city magistrate and the employment ministry’s local headquarters, said one bystander.
Security forces arrested some protesters and transferred them to other towns, according to a bystander, who also refused to be identified.
Police in Sohar refused requests for their account of the incident.
The country’s Shura Council was to ask for a meeting with the government to discuss the government’s response to the protests. One member of the council, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “We’re unhappy with the way the police handled the situation,”
The deaths of two protesters came one day after the government announced increased allowances for university students and the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said, reshuffled his cabinet.
The reorganised cabinet contains two ministers who are new. Key ministries such foreign affairs, defence, national economy and oil and gas remain in the hands of current ministers or advisers of the sultan.
The root of many of the protesters’ grievances is economic. Most are unemployed or underemployed in a country of three million people, a third of whom are foreign workers.
One protester still searching for a job one year after graduating from secondary school, said: “We cannot survive on 200 rials (Dh1,900) when the rent is about the same for a two-bedroom flat in Sohar.”
Earlier this month, in a move many here saw as an attempt to head off the kind of protests that have rocked other Arab countries, the government increased minimum salaries for Omani citizens from 140 rials to 200 rials a month and raised pensions.
The increased allowances for university students announced yesterday mean that students will now receive 90 rials, instead of 50 rials, a month. The government also promised to create a consumer protection unit to look into rising food prices, the Oman News Agency reported. According to official figures, prices in Oman increased 4.3 per cent in 2010 compared to a year earlier.
Sohar, located 450km north of Muscat, is home to Oman’s largest companies, including Sohar Aluminium, Oman Methanol and the Sohar Port.