MUSCAT, Oman – Protesters set a supermarket ablaze and gathered in several sites in a seaside town in Oman on Monday in a third consecutive day of unrest that has included deadly clashes in the strategic Gulf nation.
Security forces sealed off main roads to Sohar, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) northwest of the capital of Muscat, in attempts to isolate the protesters and keep crowds from swelling.
Omar al-Abri, an official at the state-run Oman News Agency, said one person has been confirmed dead Sunday after police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who took to the streets in Sohar. State hospital officials had set the death toll at two. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.
Witnesses said a supermarket was set on fire Monday and protesters had gathered in two traffic circles in the town.
Oman, ruled by a powerful family dynasty, marks the latest flashpoint in the Arab world's challenges to authority and suggests that demonstrations could widen in the Gulf with protest rallies planned next month in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Oman shares control with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf — the route for about 40 percent of the world's oil tanker traffic. Oman also plays an important role as a mediator between Iran and the West because of its strong ties to Tehran and Washington.
Protests have been rare in the country, which wraps around the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula. But Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is moving quickly to try to offer reforms to quell the demands that include more jobs and a greater public voice in the country's affairs.
On Sunday, he ordered 50,000 new state positions and a monthly stipend of 150 rials ($390) for job seekers. A day earlier, the sultan replaced six Cabinet members.
A high-level delegation planned to travel to Sohar to meet with protesters, who on Sunday set fire to cars, a police station and the governor's residence.
In September, Oman helped negotiate $500,000 bail to free American Sarah Shourd from Iranian custody after being detained along the Iraqi border in July 2009 with two companions.
The other two Americans pleaded not guilty to espionage charges earlier this month. Shourd was ordered by Iran to return for the trial, but she remained in the United States.