Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Sudan Sunday chanting ‘civilian rule, civilian rule’ as police fired tear gas in Khartoum, amid international calls for restraint to avoid a new deadly crackdown.
The planned “million-man” march is being seen as a test for protest organisers whose movement has been hit by a June 3 raid on a Khartoum sit-in and a subsequent internet blackout that has curbed their ability to mobilise support.
Dozens of demonstrators were killed and hundreds wounded when armed men in military fatigues stormed the sit-in outside army headquarters, shooting and beating protesters who had camped there since April 6.
On Sunday, police fired tear gas in the northern Khartoum district of Bahari and in Mamura and Arkweit, in the capital’s east, as thousands of protesters chanted “Civilian rule! Civilian rule!”, witnesses said.
Security forces also fired tear gas at demonstrators in the eastern town of Gadaref, a witness said.
The latest demonstrations come at a time when Ethiopia and the African Union (AU) are jointly mediating between the protesters and generals.
The European Union, several Western nations and rights groups have called on the generals to avoid any violence.
Thousands of men and women, flashing victory signs and carrying Sudanese flags, flooded the streets of Al-Sahafa neighbourhood of Khartoum, an AFP correspondent reported.
“We are here for the martyrs of the (June 3) sit-in. We want a civilian state that guarantees our freedom. We want to get rid of military dictatorship,” said Zeinab, 23, as travellers in vehicles cheered them and motorists honked their horns in support as they drove by.
“No one gave a mandate to the military council, all the people are against the council,” said another protester, who did not reveal his name, as he chanted “I’m the next martyr.”
Others took to the streets of Jabra neighbourhood in Khartoum, with many chanting revolutionary slogans, witnesses said, while rallies were under way in other districts.
Thousands also launched protests in the cities of Port Sudan, Al-Obied, Madani and Khasma el-Girba, witnesses said.
– Crackdown feared –
The feared paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) deployed in pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns in several Khartoum squares and many shops were shut, an AFP correspondent said.
RSF chief General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo warned he would not tolerate any “vandalism” at the protests.
“There are vandals, there are people who have an agenda, a hidden agenda, we don’t want problems,” Dagalo, who is also the ruling military council’s deputy chief, said Saturday.
In the run-up to the protest — the first major rallies since the crackdown — many Sudanese said they feared new violence.
“I expect large numbers… and it’s very possible that security forces will use force,” said Mustafa, 25, who gave only his first name for security reasons, adding he planned to participate.
Talal, 29, added: “Even if only a few rallies take place in Khartoum, they will break the barrier of fear and more people will take to the streets” in the coming days, he said.
The umbrella protest movement, the Alliance for Freedom and Change, said demonstrators in Khartoum and its twin city of Omdurman would march to the homes of some of the protesters killed on June 3.
About 130 people have been killed since the crackdown, the majority of them on that day, according to doctors close to the alliance.
The health ministry says 61 people died nationwide on June 3.
The ruling military council insists it did not order the dispersal, but acknowledged “excesses” after orders were given to purge a nearby area allegedly notorious for drug peddling.
The council has warned it would hold the alliance “entirely responsible if any soul is lost” in Sunday’s protest.
An RSF unit allegedly prevented protest leaders from holding a news conference Saturday to unveil plans for the rally.
– ‘World is watching’ –
Tensions remain high since the June 3 raid, which followed the collapse of talks over who should lead a new governing body — a civilian or soldier.
Ethiopia and the AU have proposed a blueprint for a civilian-majority body, which the generals say could be a basis for resuming talks.
Protesters had initially gathered at the military headquarters to seek the army’s support in ousting longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir.
They kept up their sit-in to demand civilian rule after the generals deposed the president on April 11.
Demonstrators’ “right to peacefully protest and express their views on 30 June, or on any other date, remains key,” the European Union said.
Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo said the military council “must not allow the country to slide back into yet more repression.”
“The world is watching.”