, KHARTOUM, April 16- Sudan extended nationwide elections by one day Wednesday after a low turnout the opposition said reflected apathy towards a vote President Omar al Bashir is widely expected to win.
The 71 year old career soldier, indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, is seeking to extend his quarter century rule virtually unopposed.
He faces 13 little-known challengers in an election boycotted by the mainstream opposition in the country of nearly 38 million people, the third most-populous state in the Arab world.
Two of the original 15 candidates for the presidency — independents Omar Awad al-Karim and Ahmed Radhi — said on Wednesday they were withdrawing from the vote after the extension.
Radhi told AFP he was withdrawing “because of the many irregularities in the process”.
And Karim labelled the vote a “political farce” at a press conference in his home, also citing irregularities.
Since voting began Monday, the elections for the presidency and for national and state parliaments have seen a poor turnout.
Polls had been due to close Wednesday evening, but the National Electoral Commission announced they would stay open on Thursday in all districts.
The extensions are to allow Sudanese “to choose their representatives in the national and state parliaments and the presidency of the republic,” NEC chief Mokhtar al-Asam told a press conference.
The opposition Umma Party, which is boycotting the vote, seized on the trickle of voters as a sign of disillusionment.
“It was expected the turnout would be like this, because it will bring no change,” said Umma deputy head Maryam al-Mahdi.
“Bashir will sweep all the votes for the presidency. There is absolutely no competition in this election.”
– Boycott activist ‘detained’ –
Most opposition parties have called for a boycott, organising small sit-ins against the vote.
An activist detained as she was travelling to one such protest the day before polls opened was released on Wednesday, one of her colleagues said.
Sandra Kaduda was “released and returned to her home,” said Amal Habani, a journalist and activist close to the family.
Habani said Kaduda’s family would issue a statement about her detention later.
Security forces told her family they had no knowledge of her whereabouts, but Kaduda’s mother had said she was sure her daughter was being held by them.
Rights groups have accused Bashir’s government of using security forces to stifle dissent.
Bashir toppled a democratically elected government in a 1989 Islamist-backed coup and is Sudan’s longest-serving leader since independence.
He won a 2010 presidential election overshadowed by a boycott and criticised for failing to meet international standards.
In the hour after the sole polling centre on Khartoum’s Tuti Island opened Wednesday, just 15 residents had come to cast their ballots, an AFP correspondent said.
The centre’s head, Muatasim Ahmed, said less than one quarter of the 8,158 people registered there had voted, with attendance highest on Monday, a public holiday.
– Voting disrupted –
In addition to the extra day of voting, the NEC had already said extended Wednesday poll opening by an hour, to 1600 GMT.
Polls will close at the same time on Thursday.
Outside the capital, voting has been interrupted in nearly 160 centres by unrest and problems delivering voting material.
In the central Jazira state alone, about 152 stations failed to open on time because there were no ballot papers.
The NEC already announced Tuesday that it would extend voting across Jazira until Friday because of that.
The rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA-N) also attacked three stations in war-torn South Kordofan Monday, shutting them down before being beaten back by the army.
They also fired rockets at the towns of Kadugli and Dilling Tuesday, without any effect on voting, Asam said.
The SPLA-N has vowed to disrupt elections in the state, as well as in Blue Nile, where it mounted a rebellion against Bashir in 2011.
Rebels in the western region of Darfur, which has been plagued by conflict since 2003, had said they would do the same.
Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur.
Police broke up a student protest of around 200 people in North Darfur state capital El Fasher Tuesday morning, the UN AU peacekeeping mission in the region said.
The “police fired warning shots into the air to control and disperse the demonstrators”.
Results are expected in late April, but if a single candidate does not get an outright majority, there would have to be a second round.