, Khartoum, Sudan, Jan 25 – Sudan’s main opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi on Friday called for President Omar al-Bashir to step down, throwing his support behind anti-government demonstrators after weeks of deadly protest.
Demonstrations have rocked the east African country since December 19, prompted by a government decision to triple the price of bread.
Since then 30 people have died in protest-related violence, according to officials, while rights group put the death toll at more than 40.
“This regime has to go immediately,” Mahdi told hundreds of worshippers at a mosque in Omdurman, the twin city of the capital Khartoum, which has seen near daily anti-government protests.
Echoing protesters’ call for Bashir to resign, Mahdi gave an even higher death toll for the demonstrations.
“More than 50 people have been killed since December,” said Mahdi, a fixture of Sudanese politics since the 1960s whose government was toppled by Bashir in a 1989 coup.
After nearly a year in exile, Mahdi returned to Sudan last month on the same day protests began.
On Friday, he backed the Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), an umbrella group of doctors, teachers and engineers which is leading demonstrations.
“A period of transition will come soon… we are supporting this (protest) movement,” said Mahdi, adding his party had signed a document with the association.
“This is a document for change and freedom,” he said.
While Mahdi’s Umma Party has served as Sudan’s main opposition group, regularly campaigning against government policies, analysts say the SPA has emerged as the biggest challenge yet to Bashir’s rule.
“Together we will hold peaceful demonstrations in Sudan and outside of Sudan,” Mahdi said, condemning the use of “live ammunition” against protesters.
– ‘Freedom, peace, justice’ –
Following Mahdi’s address, worshippers marched out of the mosque chanting the protest movement’s slogan: “freedom, peace, justice”.
But the demonstrators were quickly confronted by riot police who fired tear gas, witnesses said.
Protesters also took to the streets in Khartoum’s eastern district of Burri, burning tyres and rubbish, according to onlookers who said the rally was also met with tear gas.
The SPA has stepped up pressure on the government with calls for daily demonstrations, with thousands of people joining rallies across the country on Thursday.
Apart from Khartoum and Omdurman, protests were held in the Red Sea town of Port Sudan, in the agricultural state of Gadaref, in North State and in the central city of Madani.
Police spokesman General Hashim Abdelrahim told AFP early on Friday that two protesters had died in Khartoum state the previous day.
Sudan’s feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) has launched a sweeping crackdown on protesters that has seen hundreds jailed, including journalists, opposition leaders and activists.
This has triggered widespread international criticisms, including from the United Nations and the United States.
Bashir, 75, has remained steadfast in rejecting the protesters’ call to step down, and has blamed “infiltrators” among protesters for the violence.
He has accused the US of causing Sudan’s economic woes, but his words have fallen on increasingly deaf ears as people have struggled to buy even basic foods and medicines.
Washington imposed a trade embargo on Sudan in 1997, which was only lifted in October 2017.