Fuel price hikes that sparked deadly protests in Sudan were designed to preventan economic meltdown, President Omar al-Bashir has said, in his first comments on the unrest that has hit the country.

"The latest economic measures aim at preventing the collapse of the economy following the increase in inflation and instability in the exchange rate," the official SUNA news agency quoted him as saying on Tuesday.

Bashir also spoke of "conspiracies being planted by the saboteurs against our country".

On September 23, the government cut petrol subsidies, driving up pump prices by more than 60 percent and prompting protests in the capital Khartoum and its surrounding areas.

Authorities say at least 34 people were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters, though some human rights groups say the number of deaths is at least three times higher. 

The International Federation for Human Rights, headquartered in Paris, said in a statement on Tuesday that at least 170 people had been killed by the Sudanese authorities, hundreds more injured and at least 800 arrested since demonstrations began. 

"Newspapers and media outlets have been suspended or censored and known members of political opposition parties, other activists and journalists have been detained," the statement issued by the group said. 

Forced to intervene

The Information Ministry said security forces had to intervene when crowds turned violent. 

Sudan's government said that the fuel hikes were part of measures designed to stabilise an economy plagued by inflation and a weakening currency since South Sudan separated in 2011, taking with it most of Sudan's oil production.

We are very angry about what happened because those protesters, their only weapons were stones and their shouts

Yusif Mohammed, 50, Relative of killed protester



The lost oil accounted for the majority of Khartoum's export earnings, costing the country billions of dollars.

Reducing subsidies on petroleum will save billions, the government said.

Bashir said the economy has suffered "negative impact" from the separation of the South and the disappearance of oil revenue.

"Peaceful demonstration is a civic right," Bashir said, while SUNA added that he "asked God to have mercy upon the martyrs".

But residents and next of kin of those killed in the protests said they wanted answers from the government. 

Yusif Mohammed, 50, a teacher whose brother was killed in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman, said "we are very angry about what happened because those protesters, their only weapons were stones and their shouts". 

Osama Mohammed, 47, who works in a private company, told the AFP news agency: "After the deaths of those youths we will not keep silent."

At present, more than two million people live in poverty in the country with 300,000 living without proper access to food or water. 

The latest unrest is the worst urban unrest ever seen during Bashir's 24-year rule. 

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies