Five protesters were killed on Saturday as huge crowds defied gunfire and tear gas in Sudan’s capital Khartoum and other cities to demonstrate against a military takeover, witnesses and medics said.
The protests came two days after army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan announced a new ruling council that excludes the civilian coalition the military had been sharing power with since 2019, hardening opposition among pro-democracy groups to the October 25 coup.
In a sign authorities may be stepping up efforts to quash a campaign of planned protests and civil disobedience, security forces moved to disperse protesters as soon as they began to gather in the early afternoon. They fired tear gas and chased demonstrators down side streets to prevent them reaching central meeting points, witnesses said.
Previously, security forces had waited until later in the day before moving in.
“People were surprised that they fired the tear gas so early,” said one protester in Omdurman across the Nile from central Khartoum, adding that demonstrators retreated, barricaded streets, and then reassembled.
Most protesters dispersed of their own accord around sunset, though tear gas and gunfire continued until around 8 p.m. in Khartoum North as security forces arrested protesters and removed their barricades, witnesses said.
Witnesses estimated the numbers around Khartoum to be in the tens of thousands, with large crowds in other cities bringing the total nationwide to hundreds of thousands.
“The revolutionaries have nothing but peacefulness and are calling for democracy and bringing back civilian rule which was taken away by Burhan,” said Mohamed Hamed, a protester in Khartoum who held up the cases of two of the bullets he said were being used against protesters.
In Wad Madani, south-east of Khartoum, protesters chanted “Down, down with military rule”, a witness said. Protesters in other cities, including Al Gadarif and Kosti, were also met with tear gas, witnesses said.
The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, which is aligned with the protest movement, said demonstrations in Khartoum were “facing excessive repression using all forms of force including live bullets”.
In Khartoum and its twin cities of Omdurman and Khartoum North four people were killed by live fire and one after suffocating from tear gas, the committee said. It said access to hospitals was difficult and that security forces had stormed Al Arbaeen hospital in Omdurman, beating medical staff and arresting injured protesters.
A medic at Khartoum’s Royal Care hospital said it had received one fatality and 29 wounded, including some with serious injuries.
“People should not stop, I was beaten but I have to go back to protest tomorrow,” said one of the wounded demonstrators, declining to be named. “It’s good that I’m alive but I wanted to be a martyr. I said goodbye before I left home.”
Sudanese police said they did not use firearms during the protests, which they said began peacefully but went off track. They said 39 policemen were injured and stations were attacked, triggering arrests.
A military spokesman suggested the protests had failed. Burhan has previously said peaceful protests are allowed and the military does not kill protesters.
The military takeover upended a transition towards democracy that began after the uprising that toppled autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Security forces detained senior officials appointed under a power-sharing arrangement between the military and civilian groups. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was placed under house arrest.
On Saturday, protesters carried pictures of Hamdok, now a symbol of resistance to military rule, while chanting against Burhan and his deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.
Mobile internet services have remained cut in Sudan since the coup, despite a court order to restore them, complicating efforts by the protest movement.
Local resistance committees had used flyers and organised smaller neighbourhood protests in recent days.
Despite widespread opposition from Sudan’s political parties and pressure from Western powers that backed the transition, Burhan has pushed to consolidate the military’s position. He has denied staging a coup, saying the army moved to correct the transition and accusing civilian groups of inciting unrest.
Malik Agar, one of three former rebel leaders named in the Sovereign Council, whose position on the military takeover had been unclear, told Sky News Arabia on Saturday that he considered it a coup which faced “many challenges”.
Western states and the World Bank have suspended economic assistance designed to help pull Sudan out of decades of isolation and a deep economic crisis.
The United States and other Western powers expressed grave concern at Burhan’s appointment of the Sovereign Council.
The U.S. mission in Khartoum said: “The U.S. Embassy deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries of dozens of Sudanese citizens demonstrating today for freedom and democracy, and condemns the excessive use of force.”