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Soldiers killed alongside protesters in Sudan crackdown, activists say

Opposition group says five soldiers are among 21 people killed in attacks by security forces on protesters gathered outside army headquarters
Protesters gather on top of a military vehicle underneath a pedestrian crossing during a demonstration in front of the army headquarters on Tuesday (AFP)
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At least five Sudanese soldiers have been killed since the army intervened to protect protesters from security forces and militia units loyal to President Omar al-Bashir, opposition activists said on Tuesday.

In a statement, the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors said that the soldiers were among 21 people killed by suspected militia fighters outside the army’s headquarters in Khartoum, where protesters have been gathered for the past three days.

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Abdul Hamid, an eyewitness, told Middle East Eye that government and ruling party militia units had attacked the protesters from different directions using live bullets and tear gas.

He said the fighters appeared to be driving vehicles belonging to the government’s Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary unit which has been deployed against rebel groups in Darfur and also acts as a border patrol force.

“Some of them were dressed in ordinary clothes,” said Hamid.

"We were not sure which specific units they belonged to, but in general they are loyal to the ruling party and the security forces which support the inner circle around Bashir.”

Witnesses spoken to by the AFP news agency blamed members of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and riot police for the attack, and said soldiers had subsequently fired shots in the air in response.

Sudanese opposition groups accused the government of intentionally trying to drag the country into chaos in order to justify continued repression against the protesters whose demands for Bashir to quit have grown louder since anti-government demonstrations began in 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.

Omer Al-Digair, the head of the opposition Congress Party (SCP), told MEE: “We will never allow that to happen. In the end, it is the regime who is responsible for whatever bad consequences happen as it is the only side that controls the power and owns the weapons.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the Sudanese Professionals Association, one of the main groups behind the protests, accused Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) of responsibility for the latest killings, which it said were part of efforts by the National Islamic Front faction within the party to buttress its three-decade rule.

Several activists spoken to by MEE suggested that the NCP leadership had given a “green light” for the latest violence by loyalist security forces, and had also approved arming party members to join militia units.

'Shadow troops'

Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Sudan’s former ex-first vice president, said in January that the Islamic Front had established units of “shadow troops” to defend the NCP’s rule.

The Islamic Front also trained thousands of fighters who made up the Popular Defence Forces (PDF), a reserve force which was also deployed against rebels in Darfur and in South Sudan prior to its gaining independence in 2011.

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Opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, a former prime minister, on Tuesday called on the government to step back from violence and for the army to oust Bashir and oversee a transition of power to the opposition “Change and Freedom” alliance and the SPA.

Both the NCP and the army’s leadership have denied that Bashir intends to step down, and say they will support him until scheduled elections in 2020.

“We don’t see the seriousness of the situation as requiring the stepping down of the president,” Mohamed Al-Hassan Alamin, political secretary of the NCP’s consultative council, told MEE.

Alamin also denied that the ruling party was using its own militia units against the protesters, and said the government had only deployed regular security forces.

International pressure on the government in Khartoum continued to grow on Tuesday with the US, the UK, and Norway calling on the Sudanese authorities to respond to the protesters’ demands for political change in a “serious and credible way”.

The three countries make up the so-called “Troika”, which has acted as the international community’s main intermediary in peace talks between the government in Khartoum and rebel groups in Darfur and other restive regions, as well as in neighbouring South Sudan.