Security forces stormed a protest camp in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Monday morning and at least nine people were reported to have been killed in the worst violence since the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in April.
Footage broadcast by al-Hadath and Jazeera television showed chaotic scenes of people fleeing through streets as sustained bursts of gunfire crackled in the air. People rushed to carry away those who had been hit, the footage showed.
The main protest group accused the ruling military council of trying to break up the camp, calling the action “a massacre”. But the council said the security forces had targeted criminals in an adjacent area.
The protesters and Sudan’s military rulers had been negotiating over who should govern in a transitional period following the overthrow of Bashir after months of generally peaceful demonstrations, but the talks have become deadlocked.
The Transitional Military Council (TMC) has offered to let protesters form a government but insists on maintaining overall authority during an interim period. The demonstrators want civilians to run the transitional period and lead Sudan’s 40 million people to democracy.
Thousands of young men and women have been taking turns to camp outside the Defence Ministry, the focal point of anti-government protests that started in December.
The opposition’s doctors committee said nine people had been killed in Monday’s violence.
“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,” the protest group said in a statement.
It urged the Sudanese people to come to their aid.
The military council’s spokesman, Lieutenant General Shams El Din Kabbashi, said the raid targeted criminals and that the protesters were safe.
“The protest camp has not been dispersed,” Kabbashi said. “The security forces were trying to disperse unruly (elements) in the Colombia area, near the protest site, and some of these elements fled to the protest site and caused this chaos.”
The council was still committed to a political settlement and was ready to resume talks on a civilian transition soon, Kabbashi added.
US, BRITISH CONCERN
The British Ambassador in Khartoum said he had heard heavy gunfire for more than an hour from his residence and he was extremely concerned.
“No excuse for any such attack. This. Must. Stop. Now,” Ambassador Irfan Siddiq wrote on Twitter.
The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum also described the attack on the protest camp as “wrong” and said it must stop.
“Responsibility falls on the TMC. The TMC cannot responsibly lead the people of Sudan,” the embassy said on its Twitter account.
The television footage showed black smoke rising from tents apparently torched by the raiding force.
Protesters poured into the streets in Khartoum and its twin city of Omdurman, on the opposite side of the River Nile, after news of the raid spread. Demonstrators blocked roads with rocks and burning tyres, witnesses said.
Demonstrators, some waving Sudanese flags, hurled stones at security forces, who charged amid sounds of intense gunfire.
A video posted on social media showed one protester collapse to the ground, crying in pain after being hit by what appeared as live fire.
A Reuters witness saw troops wielding batons, including riot police and members of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, deploy in central Khartoum and close roads, apparently to try to block people from reaching the protest site.
Bridges over the Nile have also been blocked.
There were no signs of any security forces in Omurdam.
Under Bashir, an Islamist former general who ruled for three decades and is wanted by international prosecutors for alleged war crimes in the Darfur region, Sudan was on a U.S. list of sponsors of terrorism.
Various powers, including wealthy Gulf Arab states, and now trying to influence its path. Stability is crucial for the security of a volatile region struggling against Islamist insurgencies, from the Horn of Africa through Egypt and Libya.