KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Security forces stormed a protest camp in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Monday and opposition-linked medics said more than 35 people were killed in the worst violence since the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in April.
Footage shared on social media from Monday morning and verified by Reuters showed chaotic scenes of people fleeing through streets as sustained bursts of gunfire crackled in the air during violence that drew rapid Western and African censure.
Sporadic rounds of gunfire could still be heard in several neighbourhoods until the early hours of Tuesday morning, Reuters witnesses said.
The violence dashed hopes for a restart to stalled talks between the main opposition coalition and the ruling military council over who should govern in a transitional period after Bashir’s overthrow.
The witnesses said protesters set up barricades made of blocks, scrap metal and light poles pulled down from the sidewalks throughout the streets of Khartoum and its twin city of Omdurman across the Nile.
A sit-in next to the Defence Ministry, the focal point of anti-government protests that started in December, had been cleared, witnesses said.
A group of doctors linked to the opposition said at least 35 people had been “martyred” in Monday’s violence, with the toll expected to rise. The group had earlier said at least 116 people were wounded.
The main protest group accused the ruling military council of perpetrating “a massacre” as it broke up the camp.
The Transitional Military Council (TMC) denied that, with a spokesman, Lieutenant General Shams El Din Kabbashi, telling Reuters security forces were pursuing “unruly elements” who had fled to the protest site and caused chaos.
“The Transitional Military Council regrets the way the situation unfolded, reaffirming its full commitment to the ... safety of the citizens and renews its call for negotiations as soon as possible,” the council later said in a statement.
Sudan’s public prosecutor on Monday ordered an investigation into the violence, state news agency SUNA said.
An alliance of protest and opposition groups that had been negotiating with the military for weeks said it was halting all contact with the council.
The TMC had offered to let protesters form a government but insisted on maintaining overall authority during an interim period. Demonstrators want civilians to run the transitional period and lead Sudan’s 40 million people to democracy.
The protest-linked doctors group said security forces surrounded one Khartoum hospital and opened fire at another where they were pursuing protesters.
“The protesters holding a sit-in in front of the army general command are facing a massacre in a treacherous attempt to disperse the protest,” said the main protest organiser, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA).
The SPA said it would declare Tuesday to be the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, another attempt to contradict the TMC which said the holiday would start on Wednesday. The move is highly symbolic in Sudan, where people strictly observe the holy month of Ramadan and subsequent festivities.
The United Nations, African Union and European Union expressed deep concern, some explicitly blaming the military.
“What is clear to us is that there was use of excessive force by the security forces on civilians,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Britain’s ambassador Irfan Siddiq said he heard gunfire for more than an hour from his residence. “No excuse for any such attack. This. Must. Stop. Now,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Responsibility falls on the TMC. The TMC cannot responsibly lead the people of Sudan,” added the U.S. embassy.
The European Union urged a speedy transfer of power to civilians. Neighbouring Egypt called for “calm and restraint”, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said it hoped that dialogue would prevail in Sudan.
“The regional experience has taught us that the orderly and conservative transition of the state and its institutions is the only way to avoid years of chaos and loss,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said on Twitter.
As the protests unfurled in Khartoum, demonstrators hurled stones at security forces, who charged amid sounds of intense gunfire.
A Reuters witness saw troops wielding batons, including riot police and members of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), deploy in central Khartoum and close roads, apparently to try to block people from reaching the protest site.
The RSF is commanded by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the military council’s deputy head. Dagalo, known as Hemedti, is a close ally of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and sent Sudanese troops to join the coalition they lead in Yemen’s civil war.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are eager to root out Islamists who dominated in Sudan under Bashir’s three-decade rule.
The military’s role in ousting Bashir has raised fears among many Sudanese that their country could follow a similar path to neighbouring Egypt after its 2011 uprising.
There, a military council oversaw a turbulent and sometimes violent transition before army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led the overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Mursi. Sisi was elected president in 2014 and again in 2018 with 97 percent of the vote.
Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Michael Georgy in Khartoum; Additional reporting by Ali Abdelaty, Omar Fahmy, Lena Masri and Yousef Saba in Cairo; Writing by Sami Aboudi, Aidan Lewis and Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Catherine Evans and Sonya Hepinstall