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Mass Evacuations As Cyclone Gonu Hits Oman

Oman evacuated tens of thousands of people Wednesday, suspended oil exports and closed a major port as a weakening Cyclone Gonu roared toward the Strait of Hormuz — the world's major transport artery for Persian Gulf oil.

Oil markets were little changed in midday trading, but had the potential to increase as the storm — a rarity in the region — headed toward Iran.

As heavy rains lashed coastal areas of Oman, authorities closed all operations at the port of Sohar and evacuated 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.

Nasser bin Khamis al-Jashimi of the Ministry of Oil and Gas said rough seas prevented tankers from sailing from Omani ports, effectively halting its oil exports. But production was continuing everywhere except in one small field, he said.

In the United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah, the world's third-largest shipping fuel center, all refueling and ship-to-ship supply operations had been stopped, delaying the movement of tankers, officials said.

A few ships were still sailing through the nearby Strait of Hormuz, the transport route for two-fifths of the world's oil, despite 4- to 6-foot swells and strong winds, according to Suresh Nair of the Gulf Agency Co. shipping firm.

"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," said Manouchehr Takin, an analyst at the Center for Global Energy Studies in London.

But Tim Evans, an analyst at Citigroup Global Markets, said the storm shouldn't have a major impact on prices because while it may delay oil shipments, they will eventually get to their destinations. Oil prices rose 25 cents to $65.86 a barrel in midday trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange after initially falling.

As of 11 a.m. EDT, the storm was located about 70 miles northeast of Muscat, moving in a northwesterly direction, the U.S. military's Joint Typhoon Warning Center said. The storm was packing maximum sustained winds of about 80 mph — well below the wind speeds that were recorded as it approached the Arabian Peninsula.

Gonu, which means a bag made of palm leaves in the language of the Maldives, was expected to make landfall on the Iranian coast just east of the Strait of Hormuz late Thursday, according to a tracking map posted on the Joint Typhoon Warning Center's Web site.

Even with the weaker wind speeds, Gonu is believed to be the strongest cyclone to threaten the Arabian Peninsula since record-keeping started in 1945.

"Historical record in that part of the world doesn't go back that far because these types of storms are very, very unusual for this part of the world. It's likely that parts of Oman have never experienced storms like this," said Julian Heming, a meteorologist at The Met Office, a weather tracking agency within the British Ministry of Defense.

Electricity went out in Muscat by noon Wednesday, as 62 mph winds hit the capital. Health ministry official Ali bin Gaafar bin Mohammed said rescue workers were having difficulties reaching affected areas because of flooded streets.

Flights in and out of Oman's Seeb International Airport were also canceled, according to official Hamad bin Ali al Abri.

Shareefa bint Khalfan, the minister of social development, said more than 20,000 people had been evacuated and housed in dwellings stocked with medicine and necessary supplies. Police said a dead body washed had ashore in the eastern coastal city of Sur, and there were reports of people trapped inside homes in low-lying areas around the capital.

Oman's eastern provinces were cut off, with heavy rains making roads unusable and severing communication lines. "We have no communication with them, nothing," said a senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity as is customary for security officials in Oman.

Blogger Vijayakumar Narayanan told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that many streets in Muscat were flooded and visibility was near zero at midmorning Wednesday. Earlier, he wrote in his blog that some of the wadis — or dry riverbeds — had flooded, causing roadblocks., a journalism Web site, 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.

The potential for flash flooding was high both in Oman and in neighboring countries like the UAE, as rain washes down from mountains into the dry riverbeds that cut through the desert. Another potential worry are landslides and mudslides as the normally arid mountains get lashed with rain.

Northern Oman is arid and hilly, while the south is somewhat greener and gets some rainfall from monsoon rains.

In Iran, authorities evacuated hundreds of people living in the port of Chabahr on the Sea of Oman. Iranian state TV said floods caused by heavy rain have already cut off some major roads in the southeast.

Winds gusting up to 69 mph were buffeting coastal areas near the town of Jask, about 1,125 miles southeast of Tehran, state television said.

"University and school students were moved to higher ground in the area to avoid the cyclone effects," said Hojjat Ali Shayanfar, head of emergency services in Sistan Baluchistan province.

Iranian officials said, however, that the storm was unlikely to threaten its oil platforms and installations in the Persian Gulf because they are located far from its path.

"All Iranian offshore oil platforms in the Persian Gulf are working based on their schedule without any interruption," Bahram Narimanian, spokesman of Iran's Offshore Oil Company, told the AP. "However, we have prepared for any possible difficulty."

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