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Jordan raises gas, fuel prices, sparking protests, rare public criticism of king

Jordan's prime minister announced price hikes for gas and other fuel Tuesday, setting off demonstrations and calls for general strikes.

Protesters blamed Jordan's problems on King Abdullah II, who has the final say in all civic matters. They also demanded the resignation of the prime minister, a top aide of the king.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour's announcement on state TV cited a need to offset $5 billion in state losses from a rising fuel bill.

The news sparked protests in the capital, Amman, and at least 12 other cities across Jordan.

"Revolution, revolution, it is a popular revolution," chanted about 2,000 protesters in an impromptu demonstration at a main Amman square, housing the Interior Ministry and other vital government departments.

The protesters — affiliated with Muslim, Arab nationalist, Marxist, Communist and youth opposition groups — also targeted Abdullah in a rare public display against the monarch. Criticizing the king in public is forbidden in Jordan and is punishable by up to three years in jail.

"Freedom is from God, in spite of you, Abdullah," they shouted.

Hours later, about two dozen protesters tried to take down a street portrait of the king hung on a billboard, but riot police encircled it, preventing the protesters from reaching it.

Cars jammed gas stations to stock up on fuel before the price hike takes effect on Wednesday.

Ensour said a type of fuel used in public transport will rise in price by 14 percent, while kerosene oil used for household heating goes up by 28 percent.

Cooking gas will jump 54 percent, he said. Many low-income Jordanians use the gas for heating.

Disruptions in cheap Egyptian gas shipments cost Jordan an extra $7 million a day, the government said, pushing the budget deficit to a record high of nearly $3 billion this year.

The pipeline that carries Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan has been blown up more than a dozen times over the past year by militants in Egypt's Sinai desert, halting shipments. Jordan has switched to the more expensive fuel oil to generate electricity.

Shortly after the prime minister's TV appearance, 100 protesters clashed with riot police a block away from Ensour's home in the northern city of Salt. Protesters pelted stones at policemen as they tried to break their lines to get to Ensour's home to demand his resignation, a police official said. The official, who insisted on anonymity because he is not allowed to make press statements, said riot police responded by firing tear gas. He said there were no immediate reports of injuries among police or protesters.

He declined to say if Ensour and his family were home.

In some cities in Jordan's south, inhabited by tribal Bedouins who are traditional supporters of the king, hundreds of protesters took to the streets to chant slogans calling for the ouster of the prime minister, but also criticizing the king.

In Mazar, dozens of protesters burned down the main court building after stealing documents, said Yazan Naanah, a resident who said he saw the arson but did not take part in the protest.

Further south in Maan, a hotbed for Jordanian Muslim militants, 500 protesters blocked the streets, burning tires and throwing stones at riot police, who were firing tear gas, a city official said, insisting on anonymity because he is not allowed to make press statements. He said there were no immediate reports of injuries.

Maan was the site of riots in 1988, which killed four people and wounded scores of others. The riots then unseated the Cabinet and forced a liberalization process that froze martial law and saw parliamentary elections for the first time in two decades.

The protests also spread to Jordan's north. In Sareeh, on the edge of the northern city of Irbid close to the Syrian border, angry protesters burned down a gas station, said witness Mohammed Amoura.