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Hundreds protest in Khartoum as Bashir promises dialogue with opposition

Sudan's president calls for 'silencing the sound of the rifle' as third government in two years is sworn in
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir during a swearing in ceremony in Khartoum on Thursday (Reuters)

Hundreds of anti-government protests engulfed the streets of Khartoum on Thursday as President Omar al-Bashir said he would seek dialogue with the opposition for the sake of Sudan's stability.

Marching down one of the capital's main streets, more than 200 protesters drew tear-gas volleys from police who also fired tear gas to disperse hundreds in eastern Khartoum who had gathered outside a private university, witnesses said.

In the capital's Burri neighbourhood, one group of protesters that included children chanted "the revolution is the choice of the people," a live video on Facebook showed. Some wore masks as protection from tear gas in the latest in what have become near-daily protests in Sudan since 19 December.

Why are Sudanese protesting against their government?

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Hundreds of people have been taking to the streets of a series of towns and cities in Sudan since 19 December 2018 to protest a government decision to remove subsidies on wheat and electricity.

Sudan's economy has been struggling over the past decade with inflation spiking to around 70 percent over the past year alone.

This has caused the price of bread to double, cash shortages and salaries left unpaid. The austerity measures adopted by the government are part of larger economic reforms proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The mobilisation on the ground against the price hikes - organised by a group known as the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) - found almost immediate resonance among opposition leaders, youth and women movements and rapidly turned into a larger show of discontent with 75-year-old President Omar al-Bashir. 

Protesters have been reportedly chanting "freedom, peace, justice” and “revolution is the people’s choice” as they march through the streets of the capital, Khartoum.

Sudan's armed forces have responded to protesters with tear gas and at times, live ammunition, mowing down at least 30 people, according to government figures.

Human Rights Watch, the international rights watchdog, says the death toll is closer to 51.

The protests have energised the Sudanese diaspora culminating in the biggest ever challenge to Bashir's rule since he took over the country in 1989.

Bashir, who has led the country for three decades after taking power in a military coup, promised during a swearing-in ceremony on Thursday that he would talk with the country's opposition as he faces the most sustained challenge ever to his rule.

"Securing peace and silencing the sound of the rifle is our most important priority for the country and we will communicate with the forces who reject dialogue for the sake of political stability," Bashir said, according to a presidency statement.

The 20-member cabinet sworn in was announced only a day before by Sudan's new prime minister Mohamed Tahir Eila who was only sworn in himself on 24 February.

Eila said this new government - the third to be formed in less than two years - would focus on solving the economic crisis that has triggered the anti-government rallies and led to widespread calls for Bashir to resign. 

Wave of unrest

Bashir sacked two previous administrations for failing to revive Sudan's economy, and the latest protests were triggered by price increases and cash shortages.

Last month, he declared a state of emergency, dissolved the central government, replaced state governors with security officials, expanded police powers and banned unlicensed public gatherings.

But that has not stopped the protesters, who have held several demonstrations since the new measures came into effect.

As part of the emergency measures, courts have been trying protesters in evening sessions, sparking more rallies outside court buildings. On the evening of 29 February, more than 800 protesters were tried in three separate emergency courts, as MEE reported.

Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court over charges of masterminding genocide in the Darfur region, which he denies. He has been lobbying for Sudan to be removed from a list of countries Washington considers state sponsors of terrorism.

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The listing has blocked the investment and financial aid that Sudan was hoping for when the United States lifted sanctions in 2017, economists say.

Sudan has been rapidly expanding its money supply in an attempt to finance its budget deficit, causing spiralling inflation and a steep decline in the value of its currency.

Amid the unrest, Qatar Airways announced on Thursday that it would be suspending flights to and from the capital Khartoum.

"Due to commercial reasons, all Qatar Airways flights to/from Khartoum, Sudan will be temporarily suspended effective 31 March 2019 until further notice," said the company in a Tweet.