- Associated Press - Sunday, February 27, 2011

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Omani security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters demanding political reforms on Sunday, killing at least one person in the strategic Gulf country, police officials said.

The clashes mark a significant escalation in two days of protests in Oman and show that the unrest roiling the Arab world has spread across the Gulf region. Bahrain has been engulfed by anti-government protests for two weeks, and demonstrations were reported in Kuwait.

Oman shares authority with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz. About 40 percent of the world’s oil tanker traffic passes through the waterway at the mouth of the Gulf.

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in the town of Sohar, about 120 miles northwest of the Oman capital of Muscat. Witnesses said police tried to disperse the demonstrators, firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

At least one person was killed in the clashes, a local police official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

Wary of the unrest rippling across the region, Oman‘s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, replaced six Cabinet members on Saturday in a bid to defuse tensions in the country.

But Sunday’s violence indicated that the government shake-up failed to quell the unrest in the country, where the sultan retains tight control.

“We want new faces in the government, and we have a long list of social reforms,” said Habiba al-Hanay, a 45-year-old civil servant. Ms. al-Hanay joined last week’s march of about 2,000 protesters in the capital demanding higher wages and salaries to keep pace with rising prices.

Ms. al-Hanay said unemployment is high and education is poor in the country, which only has one university. She said protests in Oman have been inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that both ended with the fall of the two countries’ long-serving presidents.

However, Ms. al-Hanay emphasized that Omanis are not seeking to oust the country’s ruler.

“We don’t want the sultan to go,” Ms. al-Hanay said. “We just hope he will hear us and make changes.”

There was no violence at last week’s protest, and the ruler raised minimum wages across the country after the march.

Oman‘s state-run news agency said Sunday a group of protesters in Sohar set cars and houses on fire, burned down a police station and set the governor’s residence ablaze. The protesters blocked the town’s main road, prevented people from going to work and harassed several members of the local council, the report said.

“Police and anti-riot police confronted this subversive group to maintain the safety of people and their properties,” the report said, adding that several policemen were injured.

The report gave no details on how the police confronted the protesters and did not note any civilian casualties.

Besides its crucial role as one of the gatekeepers for the Strait of Hormuz, Oman also is an important mediator between Iran and the West.

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. Miss Shourd was ordered by Iran to return for the trial, but she remained in the United States.

Associated Press writer Brian Murphy contributed to this report.

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