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Sudan protesters defies attacks by armed militias

Witnesses in Khartoum describe attacks by militia using teargas and firing live ammunition.

Thousands of protesters camped in the centre of Khartoum appear to have defied a fresh attempt to clear them by armed militia loyal to the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Civil society groups run by medics reported two dead and many wounded, some critically, in renewed violence in the capital on Tuesday morning. Other groups put the toll as high as five dead, including at least one soldier, and more than a hundred hurt.

Protesters have occupied a crossroads in front of a heavily guarded military and intelligence headquarters since Saturday, when vast crowds braved searing temperatures to gather there.

Security forces have made several attempts to break up the protest, but army soldiers have repeatedly come out to protect the demonstrators, often firing shots in the air and deploying soldiers on streets around the protesters.

There are conflicting accounts of events overnight but witnesses described repeated attacks by militia using teargas and firing live ammunition between 2am and 5am.

One witness said an officer opened the gates to the naval headquarters, allowing protesters to shelter from an unidentified gunman who was firing on protesters from a nearby building under construction. Images on social media showed hundreds of mainly young people in the naval headquarters at dawn.

There were also reports of dozens of smaller protests around the country on Tuesday. The apparent divisions among security forces could pose a serious challenge to Bashir’s repressive rule, experts say.

Protests first erupted on 19 December after a government decision to triple the price of bread. The unrest quickly evolved into nationwide demonstrations against Bashir’s 30-year-rule.

In recent weeks, the momentum of the protests appeared to have slowed, in part because of a state of emergency imposed in February and fierce repression. However, the biggest demonstrations so far have taken place in recent days, shaking authorities in Khartoum.

The group spearheading the protests has appealed to the army for talks on forming a transitional government. Though some lower-ranking soldiers have shown support for the protests, the position of senior officers is less clear.

Addressing a meeting of military commanders, Bashir’s defence minister and vice-president said security forces would not permit attempts to divide them, state news agency Suna reported on Monday.

However, Gen Awad Ibnouf did not criticise the protesters and expressed some sympathy with their grievances.

“Sudan’s armed forces understand the reasons for the demonstrations and is not against the demands and aspirations of the citizens, but it will not allow the country to fall into chaos,” he said.

Bashir has also acknowledged that the protesters have legitimate demands, but says they must be addressed peacefully, and through the ballot box.

Officials say 38 people have died in protest-related violence so far, while Human Rights Watch has put the death toll, from December to the end of January, at 51. Hundreds have been arrested and jailed after summary trials.

The UK and UN have called for restraint and urged that the protesters’ complaints be heard.

The European Union said an “unprecedented” number of people had come out calling for change since Saturday. “The people of Sudan have shown remarkable resilience in the face of extraordinary obstacles over many years,” the EU’s external action service said. “Their trust must be won through concrete action by the government.”

A report released last week by the US-based NGO Physicians for Human Rights said the authorities had used “unnecessary and disproportionate force against … citizens, illegally attacked medical responders and facilities, and tortured detainees”.

The sit-in protests recall those during the Arab spring of 2011, when demonstrators in Cairo and other capitals camped out in public squares for days demanding change.

Observers have pointed to possible inspiration from Algeria, where weeks of peaceful popular protests forced Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999, to resign as president this month.

Bashir, who seized power in a military coup, faces genocide charges at the international criminal court relating to extensive human rights abuses perpetrated by Sudanese forces against civilians in Darfur, the western region gripped by conflict since 2003 when rebels took up arms against the government, accusing it of discrimination and neglect.

In October 2017, the US eased sanctions against Sudan, citing improved humanitarian access, the mitigation of conflicts within the country and progress on counter-terrorism. The move was condemned by human rights organisations.

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