By SAEED AL-NAHDY and JIM KRANE
Associated Press Writers
MUSCAT, Oman (AP) - Oman evacuated tens of thousands Wednesday and closed the major port of Sohar as a weakening Cyclone Gonu roared toward the Strait of Hormuz - the world's major transport artery for Persian Gulf oil.
Meanwhile, oil prices rose amid forecasts that the strongest storm to hit the Arabian Peninsula in 60 years was barreling toward Iran, a major oil producer, and the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
As heavy rains lashed coastal areas, authorities closed all operations at the port of Sohar and evacuated the 11,000 workers, port spokesman Dirk Jan De Vink said.
Sohar's oil refinery and petrochemical plant remained running at very low levels, with authorities considering a total shutdown, he said.
De Vink said he and the other beachfront residents of the city of 60,000 were leaving their homes, all threatened by rising tides and large waves pushed by the approaching storm.
"These people know the force of the sea and they're doing the right thing," he said. "Most of them are leaving or have already left."
Electricity went out in Muscat by noon Wednesday, as winds of 62 mph hit the capital. Oman television broadcast footage of streets and buildings flooded with water. Health ministry official Ali bin Gaafar bin Mohammed said rescue workers had difficulties reaching affected areas.
"Even helicopters cannot fly, so it is very difficult," he said. In the nearby Al-Amriyat town, a flood-related mudslide closed a main road.
Flights in and out of Oman's Seeb International Airport were canceled Wednesday, according to an official Hamad bin Ali al Abri. Flights that were en route to Muscat were diverted to other airports in the region, he said.
Further northeast, in the UAE port of Fujairah, the world's third-largest shipping fuel center, all refueling and ship-to-ship supply operations had been halted. Ships were being allowed to berth but other marine activities were suspended, officials said.
A few ships were still sailing through the nearby Strait of Hormuz despite 4- to 6-foot swells and strong winds, according to Suresh Nair of the Gulf Agency Co. shipping firm.
"The entire area is unsafe. Vessels that were bound to call here say they are diverting because of the storm," Nair said. "Some are still going through the strait."
Manouchehr Takin, an analyst at the Center for Global Energy Studies in London, said the real fear is that the loading of tankers might be delayed by the storm.
"About 17-21 million barrels a day of oil are coming out of the Persian Gulf. Even if only some of the tankers are delayed, that could reduce the supply of oil and increase prices," Takin said.
Omani Interior Minister Saud bin Ibrahim Albousaidi instructed residents to leave their houses near the sea and seek shelter on hilltops. But Omani officials said most of the country's oil fields, to the northwest of the capital, were still operating.
Police officials reported a dead body washed ashore in the eastern coastal city of Sur.
Rains had subsided slightly earlier Wednesday but had intensified again by midmorning, with almost zero visibility, and were expected to remain strong through mid-afternoon.
Shareefa bint Khalfan, Omani minister of social development, said more than 20,000 people were evacuated and housed in government-provided dwellings outfitted with medicines and necessary supplies.
In Iran, authorities evacuated hundreds of people living in the port city of Chabahr on the coast of the Sea of Oman, believed to be next in the cyclone's path.
Maximum sustained winds of about 86 miles per hour were reported with gusts to nearly 104 miles per hour, regional weather services said.
As of 1 p.m. (5 a.m. EDT), the storm was reported about 60 nautical miles southeast of Muscat, moving in a northwesterly direction, the services said. A tracking map posted on the Web site of the U.S. military's Joint Typhoon Warning Center predicted the center of the storm would skirt the capital Muscat after 4 p.m. (8 a.m. EDT) Wednesday.
Blogger Vijayakumar Narayanan told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that many city streets were flooded and that
visibility was near-zero in Muscat at midmorning Wednesday.
NowPublic.com, a journalism Web site with 98,000 members in 3,500 communities worldwide, reached out to the blogger in Oman.
The AP began working with NowPublic this year to obtain citizen journalism images and video for distribution to news organizations.
At 5:50 a.m. local time, Narayanan wrote in his blog: "We have noticed rains have subsided considerably. ... Some of the wadis have started flooding, causing roadblocks." But at 9 a.m., he said rains had again become strong in the city.
Narayanan said the storm has alarmed many Omanis, unaccustomed to cyclones. "They haven't had this kind of fear before."
Oman's eastern provinces were cut off, with heavy rains making the roads unusable and communication lines severed. "We have no communication with them, nothing," said a senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity as is customary habit for security and police officials in Oman.
Gonu, which means a bag made of palm leaves in the language of the Maldives, was expected to hit land in southeastern Iran late Wednesday or early Thursday, according to AccuWeather.com meteorologist Donn Washburn.
The Joint Typhoon Warning Center predicted rough seas in the Straits of Hormuz, the transport route for two-fifths of the world's oil and the southern entrance to the Gulf.
First hit by the storm Tuesday, Oman's Masirah Island, includes
one of four air bases that the Omani government allows the U.S. military to use for refueling, logistics and storage, although little has been revealed publicly about U.S.-Oman military ties.
The Masirah base hosted U.S. B-1B bombers, C-130 transports and U.S. Special Forces AC-130 gunships during the war in Afghanistan, and the United States has continued to have basing rights on the island.
On Masirah, authorities said a state of emergency had been declared. Troops and police were mobilized to help provide shelter and medical services.
Even with the weaker wind speeds, Gonu is expected to be the strongest cyclone to hit the Arabian Peninsula since record keeping started in 1945. A cyclone is the term used for hurricanes in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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