Paramilitary force violently cracks down on protesters despite its initial support for protests against Omar al-Bashir.
Sudanese protest leaders have “totally” rejected the military’s offer for an unconditional resumption of talks as opposition-linked doctors said the death toll since a violent dispersal of a protest camp in the capital jumped to more than 100.
The number of those killed rose on Wednesday after the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors said 40 bodies were pulled from the Nile River and taken to an unknown location by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
The committee said the bodies were retrieved from the river on Tuesday, a day after security forces stormed the weeks-long sit-in outside the military headquarters in the capital, Khartoum.
It said the number of those killed was at least 108 but warned that it was likely to rise. More than 500 people were wounded.
In the early hours of Thursday, however, state news agency SUNA cited a health official as saying that the death toll did not exceed 46.
Call for talks
The raid on Monday marked a pivotal moment in the weeks-long struggle between the powerful military council and opposition groups over who should lead Sudan‘s transition to democracy following the removal of President Omar al-Bashir in April.
Immediately after the crackdown, the military council cancelled all agreements it had reached with the opposition, but on Wednesday it rowed back amid mounting international criticism of the violence.
General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the military council, said the body was ready to resume negotiations and that there would be “no restrictions” in talks with the leaders behind the months-long street protests.
“We in the military council extend our hand for negotiations without shackles except the interests of the homeland,” he said on state television.
But a Sudanese alliance of protesters and opposition groups rejected the offer, saying the military could not be trusted.
“Today the council invited us to dialogue and at the same time it is imposing fear on citizens in the streets,” Madani Abbas Madani, a leader of the Freedom and Change alliance, told Reuters news agency.
Gunfire, scattered protests
Mohammed Yousef al-Mustafa, spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which is also part of the alliance, said the protesters “totally reject” al-Burhan’s call.
“This call is not serious,” al-Mustafa told The Associated Press. “Burhan and those under him have killed the Sudanese and are still doing it. Their vehicles patrol the streets, firing at people.
“We will continue in our protests, resistance, strike and total civil disobedience,” he added.
Khartoum remained tense on Wednesday, with demonstrators blocking streets in several districts as gunfire rang out in the distance.
The RSF, which protesters accuse of carrying out Monday’s attack, “are all around on the main streets, and protesters are burning tyres and still blocking the roads,” said Hajooj, a protester.
“Moving around the capital is very hard and we are hearing gunfire. The RSF are stopping people, checking pockets, mobile phones and looting people. So it’s not safe. There’s also been reports of rapes and beatings. The internet has been cut so protesters are not able to share live videos and share information,” he told Al Jazeera from Khartoum.
A senior Sudanese rebel leader who returned from exile after al-Bashir’s overthrow was also arrested at his house, a spokesman for his organisation said.
Yasir Arman, the deputy head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) group, was seized from the house where he was staying in Khartoum by armed men who arrived in pick-up trucks and surrounded the building, the spokesman said.
“They took him without clarifying to us the place (they would take him to) and said they were from the National Intelligence and Security Service,” said Mubarak Ardol, adding that the armed men “beat” Arman and his assistant and destroyed surveillance cameras outside the house.
Meanwhile, most shops were shuttered on what would usually have been a bustling Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday. Minor protests erupted outside mosques after Eid prayers but there were no reports of significant clashes with security forces.
The deputy head of the military council, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemeti, said in a televised speech that it had launched “an urgent and transparent investigation” into the recent violence.
“Any person who crossed boundaries has to be punished,” said Hemeti, who also heads the RSF.
The military has denied trying to clear the sit-in protest, saying its forces moved in to deal with disruptive groups nearby and the violence spread from there.
The SPA has called for an international committee to investigate Monday’s deaths in what it branded a “massacre”.
David Shinn, a former senior US diplomat in Sudan, said the prospect for talks was dim as long as the violence continued.
“You cannot have successful negotiations between the protest groups and the military so long as the security forces are killing fellow Sudanese. This has to stop. Until it does, I don’t see any prospect for meaningful negotiations,” he told Al Jazeera.
Saudi Arabia, which has close ties to Sudan’s military council, said on Wednesday it was watching developments with great concern and called for more dialogue.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton said in a Twitter post that Monday’s violence by Sudan’s security forces was “abhorrent” and demanded that the military council facilitate moves towards a civilian-led government.
The United Nations Security Council met on Tuesday but failed to agree on a common position.
Afterwards, eight European countries said in a joint statement that they “condemn the violent attacks in Sudan by Sudanese security services against civilians” and that the military council’s timeframe for elections was “too short”.
The European statement added: “We call for an agreed transfer of power to a civilian-led government as demanded by the people of Sudan.
Several airlines have cancelled flights to Khartoum, including Bahrain’s Gulf Air, flydubai and EgyptAir.
Sudan has been rocked by unrest since December, when anger over rising bread prices and cash shortages broke into sustained protests against al-Bashir that culminated in the military removing him after three decades in office.