At least seven demonstrators in Sudan have been killed and more than 180 injured as tens of thousands poured onto the streets across the country to pressure the country’s ruling generals to hand over power to a civilian-led administration and seek justice for the scores of victims of a deadly military crackdown.
Dubbed the “millions march”, Sunday’s mass demonstrations were the first since security forces on June 3 killed more than 100 people during the bloody dispersal of a protest camp outside the military headquarters, the focal point of the protesters’ months-long struggle for democracy.
Protesters who spoke to Al Jazeera, which was banned by the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) from reporting in the country just a few days before the sit-in’s dispersal, said there was a “huge turnout” in the capital, Khartoum, despite a widespread internet blackout.
“They said they wanted to make their demands heard,” said Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from Juba, the capital of neighbouring South Sudan.
“People are also saying that the military and the riot police are using tear gas, live ammunition and stun grenades to try and disperse the crowd.”
The state news agency SUNA reported late on Sunday that the death toll had climbed to seven, with 181 wounded, citing a health ministry official.
The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, which is linked to the protest movement, earlier said at least five civilians, including four in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman, had been killed.
“There are several seriously wounded by the bullets of the military council militias in hospitals of the capital and the provinces,” it added.
Earlier in the day, reports said a protester had been shot dead in Atbara, the birthplace of the uprising that led to al-Bashir’s removal.
Images posted on social media appeared to show heightened security around the capital. The feared paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the group blamed by protesters for the June 3 killings were deployed in pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns in several Khartoum squares.
In the northern Khartoum district of Bahari and in al-Mamoura and Arkaweet, in the capital’s east, police fired tear gas as thousands of protesters chanted “Civilian rule! Civilian rule!”, witnesses reportedly said. Security forces were also reported to have fired tear gas at demonstrators in the eastern town of al-Qadarif.
— Hiba Morgan (@hiba_morgan) June 30, 2019
“Today has been a glorious day in Sudan, not only because of the multitude of people who participated in the protests, but also because of their unfailing commitment to non-violent resistance,” the Sudanese Professionals Association, a leading protest organisation wrote in a tweet.
“Peace has always been our movement’s first word and it will be its last.”
The march came as the African Union (AU) and neighbouring Ethiopia stepped up efforts to mediate the ongoing crisis between the protest organisers and the TMC, which seized power in April when it overthrew long-time President Omar al-Bashir in the wake of mass protests against his autocratic rule.
Rights groups have demanded the TMC guarantee the safety of demonstrators but on Saturday, on the eve of the rallies, the ruling generals warned that they would hold the protest movement responsible for any deaths or damage.
RSF chief General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo on Saturday 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,” said Dagalo, who is widely known as Hemeti and is also the TMC’s deputy head.
‘Break barrier of fear’
In the run-up to the protests, which also mark the 30th anniversary of a coup that had brought al-Bashir to power in 1989, many Sudanese said they feared new violence.
“I expect large numbers … and it’s very possible that security forces will use force,” said 25-year-old Mustafa, who gave only his first name for security reasons, adding that 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.”
The umbrella opposition group behind the protest, the Freedom and Change alliance, said demonstrators in Khartoum and its twin city of Omdurman would march to the homes of some of the protesters killed on June 3.
A doctors’ group linked to the protest movement said at least 120 people were killed in the crackdown, but officials cited a death toll of 61.
The TMC insists it did not order the sit-in’s bloody dispersal but acknowledged “excesses” after orders were given to purge a nearby area allegedly notorious for drug peddling.
AU-Ethiopia joint proposal
Tensions remain high since the sit-in 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.
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 TMC “must not allow the country to slide back into yet more repression”.
“The world is watching.”
In the lead-up to al-Bashir’s fall, tens of thousands of demonstrators were mobilised through social media, but now protest leaders have to resort to neighbourhood campaigns to keep the movement alive.