Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has told a rally of his supporters on Wednesday he would stay in power, as protesters massed a few miles away, calling for him to step down.
Thousands of people gathered in Sudan’s capital on Wednesday in a show of support for al-Bashir’s embattled government after deadly anti-government protests erupted across the country last month.
The rally backing al-Bashir, who has ruled Sudan since 1989 when he swept to power in an Islamist-backed coup, came as rival protesters launched new demonstrations in the city of Omdurman.
Hundreds of riot policemen, soldiers and security agents, some carrying machine guns, were deployed around the site of the pro-Bashir rally in the Green Yard, a large open ground in Khartoum, an AFP correspondent reported.
Dressed in a khaki shirt and trousers and waving a stick, a smiling al-Bashir greeted the cheering crowd as men and women, who arrived in buses from early in the morning, whistled and waved flags.
Striking a defiant tone, al-Bashir challenged his opponents to beat him at the ballot box and blamed unnamed foreign powers for provoking weeks of almost daily protests.
“(To) those who are seeking power, there is one way which is in the ballot box, through free and fair elections,” said al-Bashir, who opened and closed his address dancing to patriotic music and waving his cane in the air.
The rally was the first held in Khartoum in support of the president since protests erupted.
In the initial demonstrations, which broke out in towns and villages before spreading to Khartoum, several buildings of al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party were torched.
Angry demonstrators have taken to the streets since December 19 after a government decision to triple the price of bread at a time when the country is suffering an acute shortage of foreign currency and inflation of 70 percent.
Authorities say at least 19 people, including two security personnel, have been killed during the demonstrations, but Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 40.
Crowds chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and “Yes, yes Bashir we will follow you” welcomed the president at the rally with a group of ministers and top officials.
As soon as al-Bashir arrived, mobile phone networks and the internet were shut down in and around the rally site.
He told his supporters that foreign enemies were trying to break Sudan.
“There was the war, mutiny and war … They besieged us economically to make Sudan kneel down and they are trying to humiliate us with a small amount of wheat, petrol and dollars,” Bashir said during the rally organised by his ruling party.
“But our pride is more valuable than the dollar,” he told the crowd of flag-waving supporters.
Reporting from Khartoum, Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan said: “Al-Bashir has been very defiant over the past few weeks, saying he will continue to rule until elections in 2020. But protesters say they will protest until the president steps down.”
“There are concerns that more lives will be lost as the government continues to use what has been described by some international governments as excessive force,” she added.
Soon after the pro-Bashir rally ended, groups of protesters took to the street in Omdurman, the twin city of Khartoum, for yet another anti-government demonstration.
About 300 protesters chanting “Freedom, peace and justice” blocked a key road in Omdurman, but were quickly confronted with tear gas as riot police moved in to disperse them.
“We are struggling to provide our daily life needs,” a 43-year-old protester, who asked not to be named, told Reuters news agency. “We will continue to protest until Bashir’s government falls.”
More than 800 protesters have been arrested since the unrest began, officials say, insisting that the situation has now stabilised even as protests rumbled on.
Opposition leaders, activists and journalists have been arrested as part of a crackdown to prevent protests from spreading.
“We are appalled by reports of deaths and serious injury to those exercising their legitimate right to protest, as well as reports of the use of live ammunition against protesters,” the statement said.
“We urge the government of Sudan to ensure that a fully transparent and independent investigation into the deaths of protesters takes place as soon as possible, and that those responsible are held to account.”
The governments also called on Khartoum to release all those held without charge, warning that the government’s actions on the issue “will have an impact” on engagements with the governments of the four countries.