Protesters in Oman set supermarket ablaze

Protesters set a supermarket ablaze and rallied at two places in this seaside town 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 an attempt to isolate the protesters and keep crowds from swelling.

Omar al-Abri, an official at the state-run Oman News Agency, said one person was confirmed dead Sunday after police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of demonstrators in Sohar.

Witnesses said a supermarket was set on fire Monday and several hundred protesters — mostly young men — were rallying in the town's main roundabout, demanding higher salaries, jobs for unemployed youth and the dismissal of some government ministers.

By late afternoon, protests spread to Sohar's port — Oman's second largest. Witnesses said about 500 protesters blocked trucks from entering the port, about 8 miles (12 kilometers) from protest's focal point at the roundabout.

Police did not respond to Monday's protests, witnesses said.

State media reported Sohar's civilian guards, including members of women's associations, repelled protesters' attempts to set fire to a health center and several commercial sites.

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.

Government media said Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, met Monday with a senior U.S. envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, to discuss "ongoing events and developments" in the region. No other details of the talks were given.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. has been in contact with the Omani government and has encouraged Muscat "to undertake reforms that include economic opportunity and move towards greater inclusion and participation in a peaceful political process."

Protests have been rare in the country, which wraps around the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula. Still, Sultan Qaboos 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.

The Oman News Agency reported that the sultan spoke to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah by telephone late Sunday. The Saudi ruler is facing growing calls for reform and groups are calling for rallies on March 11.

A statement by Oman's ruling council said peaceful demonstrations are within the "legal rights of citizens," but strongly denounced the "sabotage" against public and private property by the protesters. The council called for an emergency session Wednesday.

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.

Just a generation ago, Oman was an isolated nation that shunned many modern world trappings.

In recent decades, however, Oman has aggressively expanded its economic base with tourism, oil and trade while quietly building military ties with Washington.

The U.S. military presence is far less overt than other places in the Gulf, such as the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain and major bases in Kuwait. But Oman has allowed American forces to use air bases for refueling, logistics and storage.

In 2002, then-Vice President Dick Cheney toured U.S. installations at Oman's Masirah Island Air Base, which hosted U.S. B-1B bombers, C-130 transports and U.S. Special Forces AC-130 gunships for the military push into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to media and research reports.

At the same time, Oman has boosted its military cooperation with Iran. In early February, Iran and Oman conducted joint naval maneuvers.


Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.