(The story refiles Tuesday’s version to correct the day in paragraph one)
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, facing the most persistent protests since he seized power in 1989, on Tuesday dismissed calls for him to step down as security forces fired tear gas to break up a demonstration in the eastern city of al-Qadarif.
Addressing soldiers at a military base near Atbara, northeast of the capital Khartoum, Bashir scoffed at calls by demonstrators for him to hand over power to the military.
“We have no problem because the army does not move to support traitors, but moves to support the homeland and its achievements,” Bashir said, according to excerpts of the speech broadcast by a TV channel affiliated to his ruling party.
Bashir, a former army general, came to power in an Islamist-backed coup and has held on through successive elections that his opponents say were not free or fair.
Protests against price rises and other economic hardship began on Dec. 19. Authorities say 19 people, including two security officials, have been killed, while Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch put the number at double that.
Security forces have blocked and broken up demonstrations using live ammunition as well as teargas and stun grenades, witnesses say.
Tuesdays’ demonstration in al-Qadarif was one of the largest demonstrations in recent weeks.
Video posted on social media showed hundreds of people chanting “freedom, peace, justice!” and “revolution is the people’s choice”. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.
Three residents of al-Qadarif, who were not involved in the protests themselves, said security forces fired tear gas to break up the protest, which was organised by a group of unions known as the Sudanese Association of Professionals.
Governor Al-Tayib Al-Amin told Reuters the protests were limited and that police dealt with the situation professionally.
Britain, the United States, Canada and Norway said in a joint statement on Tuesday they were concerned about the Sudanese government’s response to the protests.
“We are appalled by reports of deaths and serious injury to those exercising their legitimate right to protest, as well as reports of the use of live ammunition against protesters,” the statement said.
They called on the government to release immediately journalists, opposition leaders, human rights activists, and other protesters now held in detention.
Interior Minister Ahmed Bilal Othman said on Monday more than 800 people had been detained since the protests began nearly three weeks ago.
Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for war crimes and other abuses against civilians during the conflict in Darfur but he has yet not been arrested. He dismisses the accusations.
Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum and Nafisa Eltahir in Dubai; Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Angus MacSwan