Around 20 people died and dozens were wounded in dawn attacks on a sit-in outside Sudan’s defence ministry by protesters calling for President Omar al-Bashir to step down, the head of the main opposition party said.
Veteran leader Sadiq al-Mahdi called for “a select military command” to negotiate a transition to democracy, following more than three months of protests that represent the most sustained challenge to Bashir’s 30-year rule.
Mahdi’s remarks came as several thousand protesters continued for a fourth day a sit-in outside a compound in central Khartoum housing the defence ministry, Bashir’s residence and security headquarters.
On Tuesday, Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service tried twice to disperse protesters, breaking in using pickup trucks, witnesses said.
Security forces also tried to disperse the sit-in on Monday with witnesses and activists saying soldiers protected protesters.
An opposition doctors’ committee put the death toll in Sudan since the sit-in began on Saturday at 21, including five soldiers, with more than 150 injured.
Amnesty International said nine people were reportedly killed in Sudan since Saturday and it verified two deaths on Tuesday, one outside the compound.
The interior ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.
A senior leader of the Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), the main anti-government protest organiser, called for the sit-in to continue and for similar protests “in front of all armed forces headquarters throughout Sudan”.
In the first public comments by a senior SPA leader, Omar Saleh Sennar, said his group wanted a civilian transitional government and would negotiate with the army, considering it “the guarantor of the political system in Sudan”.
“I am now, from the leadership of the Professionals’ Association, present at the sit-in and more leaders of the association will appear to the public,” he told Reuters by phone.
Since December 19, Sudan has been rocked by persistent protests sparked by government’s attempt to raise the price of bread and an economic crisis including fuel and cash shortages.
Protests escalated on Saturday, when activists trying to persuade the country’s armed forces to side with them, marched to the defence ministry compound.
Mahdi, leader of opposition Umma Party, said the march and sit-in – timed to coincide with the April 6 anniversary of a 1985 military coup that forced long-time autocrat Jaafar Nimeiri to step down after protests – were “unprecedented” and had received a “kind of hospitality from the armed forces”.
Mahdi was Sudan’s democratically elected prime minister when Bashir led his overthrow in 1989 in an Islamist-backed military coup.
On Monday, the interior ministry said 39 people, including three security forces personnel, died since protests began. A spokeswoman for SPA put the death toll at nearly 70.
On Tuesday, Reuters witnessed dozens of young men blocking Nile Street in the capital where ministries are located. Protesters used scrap metal barriers to block traffic.
Soldiers on armoured vehicles were guarding the presidential palace but not moving against demonstrators, a Reuters witness said.
Britain, the United States and Norway said Sudanese authorities must deliver a credible plan for a political transition or risk greater instability.
A Sudanese police spokesman was quoted by state news agency SUNA as saying police were instructed “not to confront citizens and peaceful gatherings”.