KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir vowed to a rally of thousands of supporters in the capital Khartoum that he would stay in power despite weeks of demonstrations against his 30 year rule.
His speech failed to quell the unrest, with security forces fighting running battles on Wednesday with protesters in the city of Omdurman on the opposite bank of the Nile.
Medics reported one person killed and six others wounded by gunshots. The authorities disputed that toll, with state news agency SUNA quoting the health ministry’s director of hospitals as saying the Omdurman hospital had received no casualties.
Protesters have been staging demonstrations almost daily for weeks, enraged by shortages of bread and foreign currency. The unrest has come as the ruling party has pressed ahead with plans to change the constitution so Bashir can stay in office beyond his present term, which ends in 2020.
A defiant Bashir challenged his opponents to face him at the next election, and blamed unnamed foreign powers for provoking the protests.
“(To) those who are seeking power, there is one way which is the ballot box, through free and fair elections,” said Bashir, who opened and closed his address dancing to patriotic music and waving his cane in the air.
Around the time of Bashir’s speech, security forces across the river in Omdurman used tear gas to break up a demonstration of more than 200 people. Later, Reuters saw hundreds of protesters chant “freedom, freedom” while several main roads were closed. There was a massive presence of security forces in the main streets.
“We are struggling to provide our daily life needs,” a 43-year-old protester who asked not to be identified told Reuters. “We will continue to protest until Bashir’s government falls.”
Police officers chased demonstrators into side roads, from where they regrouped to resume their protest. Hundreds also blocked a main road, witnesses said.
A video shared on social media and verified by Reuters showed a group of protesters marching with banners and chanting: “The people want the fall of the regime,” a line made famous across the region during the Arab Spring protests of 2011.
Demonstrations over rising bread prices and currency shortages began on Dec. 19 in the northern city of Atbara and soon spread, turning into some of the most persistent opposition Bashir has faced since he took power.
A former army general who overthrew the elected government in 1989, Bashir has since repeatedly won elections which his opponents have challenged as neither fair nor free.
He presided over a long civil war which ended with a peace deal that allowed South Sudan to secede in 2011, and is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for masterminding genocide in the Darfur region, which he denies.
On Wednesday, Bashir stood on an open-air stage in central Khartoum’s Green Square and told his supporters that foreign enemies were trying to break Sudan.
“There was the war, mutiny and war ... They besieged us economically to make Sudan kneel down and they are trying to humiliate us with a small amount of wheat, petrol and dollars,” Bashir said during the rally organised by his ruling party.
“But our pride is more valuable than the dollar.”
Sudanese authorities say at least 19 people, including two security officers, have died in the protests. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say the toll is twice as high. Officers have been using live ammunition and stun grenades as well as tear gas to disperse protesters, witnesses say.
Sudan’s economy was crippled when the south seceded, taking away much of the country’s oil resources. The crisis has deepened since last year, when the country saw some brief protests over bread shortages.
The United States lifted 20-year-old trade sanctions on Sudan in October 2017. But many investors have continued to shun a country still listed by Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Sami Aboudi and Lena Masri; Editing by Andrew Heavens and John Stonestreet