Sudan Roiled by Unprecedented Protests Against Dictator Bashir's 29-year Rule

Qatar's emir expresses support for Sudanese president on fourth day of nation-wide protests ■ At least 9 killed, 14 opposition leaders arrested

A bonfire is lit along the street during protests against price increases in Atbara, Nile River state, Sudan, December 20, 2018.
\ STRINGER/ REUTERS

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani called Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Saturday to express his support for Sudan after days of anti-government protests, Bashir’s office said in a statement.

Since Wednesday, cities across Sudan have been shaken by protests triggered by an economic deterioration, with demonstrators calling for an end to Bashir’s 29-year rule. At least nine people have been killed in the protests, according to officials and witnesses, though casualty numbers are hard to confirm.

Internet service has slowed and activists have accused the government of blocking social media to stop protesters communicating. Authorities have blamed the protests on “infiltrators.”

“During the call Sheikh Tamim declared that his country stood with Sudan and was ready to offer all that was necessary to help Sudan overcome this ordeal, stressing his keenness for the stability and security of Sudan,” the statement said.

Qatar and its regional rivals have increasingly vied for influence in Sudan and other countries on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Gulf states have also been an important source of funding for Sudan after it lost three-quarters of its oil output when the south seceded in 2011.

Israeli diplomats say there have been low-level contacts with Sudan in recent years, though the authorities there have been reluctant to acknowledge them publicly. Israel had seen Sudan as an Iranian ally and accused it of serving as a conduit for arms smuggling to Palestinians in Gaza. Israeli diplomats now say they believe Sudan has distanced itself from Iran.

Last week, Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus. Many Arab countries shunned Assad since the conflict that began early in 2011 after protests calling for his downfall swept Syria. State news agency SANA said later the two leaders held talks in the presidential palace about developments in the region and in Syria.

'Coordinated and organized'

As the protests entered their fourth day on Saturday, Sudanese authorities arrested 14 leaders of an opposition coalition, a spokesman for the grouping said. Farouk Abu Issa, the 85-year-old head of the National Consensus Forces, one of the country’s two main opposition groupings, was among those detained after an opposition meeting in the capital Khartoum, said spokesman Sadiq Youssef.

“We demand their immediate release, and their arrest is an attempt by the regime to stop the street movements,” Youssef said, adding that Abu Issa was in poor health and had been transferred to hospital after his detention.

Officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Also on Saturday, students protesting in the city of al-Rahad set fire to the ruling party’s office and other official buildings and briefly closed the main road to the capital Khartoum, about 370 kilometers (230 miles) to the north east, witnesses said.

Police used teargas to disperse protesters, witnesses said. Protesters also gathered in several eastern neighborhoods of Khartoum and in the southern city of Madani, witnesses said.

Faisal Hassan Ibrahim, an assistant to Bashir and deputy head of the ruling party, said the protests were “coordinated and organized” and that two of those killed in demonstrations in the city of al-Qadarif were from the armed forces.

“Now the Sudanese armed forces are guarding strategic locations in all Sudanese regions,” he added.