Soldiers protect Sudanese protesters

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Sudanese soldiers intervened to protect several thousand demonstrators calling for an end to President Omar al-Bashir’s rule after security forces tried to break up a sit-in, witnesses and activists said.

For the first time in three months of unrest, prominent opposition leaders joined protesters outside the defence ministry in Khartoum. They addressed demonstrators who massed for two days outside the ministry compound and repeated their demand for Bashir and his government to step down immediately, witnesses said.

The compound houses Bashir’s residence and the secret service headquarters.

The interior minister told parliament six people were killed on Saturday and Sunday in disturbances in the capital, and one in Darfur.

Frequent protests in Sudan since December, when the government tried to raise bread prices, built into the most sustained challenge yet to Bashir, a former army general who came to power in a military coup in 1989.

On Saturday, protesters marched to the defence ministry hoping to deliver a memorandum urging the army to side with them. They reached the ministry compound despite attempts by security forces to stop them and set up camp.

Numbers outside the compound continued to grow on Monday despite closure of roads leading there, witnesses said.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties to “exercise utmost restraint and avoid violence” and called for the release of detained protesters, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

WARNING SHOTS

On Monday, witnesses and activists said riot police and secret service personnel charged demonstrators with pickup trucks while firing teargas, trying to disperse a crowd estimated at 3,000.

Witnesses and activists said soldiers guarding the compound came out to protect demonstrators, firing warning shots in the air.

Security forces retreated without firing and soldiers deployed, while demonstrators chanted “The army is protecting us” and “One people, one army”, witnesses said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Information Minister Hassan Ismail, also the government spokesman, contradicted the reports.

“The crowd in front of the general command has been cleared completely, in a way that resulted in no casualties.”

Previous attempts by security forces failed to disperse protesters, who vow to stay until Bashir steps down.

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

ECONOMIC CRISIS

Bashir is wanted by international prosecutors for alleged war crimes in the western Darfur region. Demonstrators accuse him of presiding over years of repression and promoting policies that devastated the economy.

Government denies any connection with atrocities in Darfur and blames US sanctions for economic hardships.

Bashir acknowledges protesters have legitimate demands but says they must be addressed peacefully and through the ballot box.

Security forces used teargas, stun grenades and mass arrests and sometimes fired live ammunition.

Authorities blocked social media. Facebook and WhatsApp, the most popular platforms in Sudan, are inaccessible without a virtual private network since Sunday, residents said.

In his address to parliament, Interior Minister Bishara Jumaa said 39 people died since the start of protests, including three members of the security forces.

He said 10,000 protesters gathered outside the defence ministry compound on Saturday, the first time authorities provided a crowd estimate.

Activists put the death toll at over 60 since protests began. They chose Saturday for their march to coincide with the April 6 anniversary of a 1985 military coup that forced long-time autocrat Jaafar Nimeiri to step down after protests.