x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Demonstrator hurt as Omani troops fire into air

Witnesses unclear whether the protester was wounded by a direct shot or a ricochet.

SOHAR // Omani troops fired into the air near the port in Sohar yesterday, wounding one protester, as they tried to clear a fourth day of protests by demonstrators who want jobs and political reforms, witnesses said.

It was not clear whether the protester was wounded by a direct shot or a ricochet. "The army shot in the air and suddenly one of the protesters fell. I am not sure how he was shot. He could have been a stray bullet because several rounds were shot in the air by the army," a witness said.

"Many people ran. The man who was shot [had] come to calm the army down", said one protester, who declining to be named. The operation went peacefully and Omani forces drove away protesters who had been keeping vigil at the Earth Roundabout, a landmark intersection in Sohar.

The security forces initially pushed away protesters from the main coastal highway that links Muscat to Sohar, 200 kilometres northwest from the capital. But protesters continued to deploy trucks blocking access from the port to nearby aluminium and petrochemical factories, AFP reported.

Armoured vehicles deployed at the Earth Roundabout, where protesters had kept vigil for a third consecutive night.

The unrest in Sohar, Oman's main industrial centre, was a rare outbreak of discontent in Oman, which has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said for four decades. Protesters insist they are not challenging the rule of Sultan Qaboos, but are merely calling for jobs and reform.

Protests were also reported yesterday in the southern port of Salalah and the northwestern oasis region of Buraimi, witnesses said.

In Salalah some 200 people demonstrated outside the office of the governor of Dhofar province, demanding and increase in wages and benefits, while dozens of protesters staged a similar rally in Buraimi.

The sultan on Sunday promised 50,000 jobs, unemployment benefits of 150 rials a month and to study widening the power of the elected Shura Council, which now only advises the government. On Monday, he issued two decrees. One set up an independent consumer protection watchdog and the other declared that he prosecutor general office would no longer report to the interior ministry.

"We see the two royal decrees as part of the new reforms and we are confident His Majesty will announce more reforms. Next we want him to consider an elected government and a constitution change," said Dr Zakaria al Mharmi, a medical practitioner at Sultan Qaboos University Hospital and one of the protesters.

He said the he was concerned about the wounded protester, but "I urge the protesters to be peaceful and the authorities not to react violently. We cannot achieve anything in a situation such as that."

Other protesters were pleased by the decrees, hopeful that the consumer protection agency would curb on inflation. "One of our demands is to control rising prices because retailers were not checked. We hope that the new agency will make sure retailers don't take unfair advantage of consumers," said Suleiman Al Haremy, a Muscat-based protester.

Legal experts also welcomed the autonomy for the prosecutor general. They said the change would make it easier for that office to prosecute government officials accused of corruption.

"This decision will stop the abuse of well-connected people in the government who use their influence to quash convictions against corruption on them," said Faisal Al Siyabi, a legal consultant at Abu Fahmi Auditing.

On Monday, hundreds of demonstrators blocked roads to the port in Sohar and looted a supermarket after setting it on fire. Security forces and protesters also clashed there Sunday. A doctor said six people had been killed in the violence. Oman's health minister said one person had been killed and 20 wounded.

Yesterday, protesters, numbering about 200, also gathered outside the Shura Council headquarter in Muscat for the second day in a row carrying placates saying. "We want more salaries," "marriage fund" and "jobs for all."

But the largest crowd, about 2000 people, gathered outside Oman's biggest mosque, the Grand Mosque, in the heart of the capital, to show their allegiance to Sultan Qaboos, chanting "Long live Qaboos," "no to violent protesters," and "Omanis are dignified people."

"I think protesters should now stop it since the government has already made many concessions," Sadiq al Lawati, a 33-year old banker said.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that Omani troops were massing near the border with the United Arab Emirates. However, a government spokesman said he knew nothing about such a troop movement and witnesses in the area reported no sign of military activity.

The violence has prompted the United States and human rights watchdog Amnesty International to call for restraint. "We have been in touch with the government and encouraged restraint and to resolve differences through dialogue," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Monday in Washington's first reaction to the unrest. Also Monday, Amnesty urged Oman, which it said has "used excessive force", to rein in its security forces and order "an immediate independent investigation". "The government must respect the right of people to engage in peaceful protest and ensure that they can do so without fear or threat," said Malcolm Smart, the director of the group's regional programme.

*With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters and the Associated Press