Sudan police teargas anti-government protesters

Sudanese police used teargas and batons to disperse hundreds of anti-austerity protesters on Friday

Sudan flag. Picture: AFP

KHARTOUM - Sudanese police used teargas and batons to disperse hundreds of anti-austerity protesters on Friday chanting 'Freedom, freedom' and demanding President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government leave power.

Protests against government spending cuts have spread outside the capital in the past two weeks, with many protesters chanting "The people want the downfall of the regime" - the refrain of last year's Arab Spring.

In power since 1989 and one of the African continent's longest serving leaders, Bashir has imposed unpopular austerity measures after losing much-needed oil revenue to South Sudan.

On Friday Sudanese police surrounded the Imam Abdel Rahman mosque, one of the largest and most famous in Khartoum and known as a centre of support for the opposition Umma Party, and fired teargas at scores of protesters, a Reuters witness said.

The protesters in turn hurled stones at security forces outside the mosque in the suburb of Omdurman, the witness said. Several people were arrested.

"Freedom, peace and justice! The revolution is the choice of the people," older white-turbaned men and younger men in T-shirts and jeans chanted outside the mosque before the security forces moved to stop the demonstration.

A few hours after Friday prayers ended, protesters had blocked off a street in the Wad Nubawi district near the mosque and were being chased by police.

"About 250 of us are surrounded inside the mosque compound and we are still being tear gassed," an activist inside the compound told Reuters by telephone.

The police could not be immediately reached for comment but officials as well as police have repeatedly denied using excessive force.

More than 100 people also protested outside a mosque in the northern suburb of Bahri, the witness said. Other witnesses said more than 150 protesters had blocked off the road in another area of Bahri, chanting "Freedom, Freedom".

BEYOND KHARTOUM

The protests, which started as mainly student-driven demonstrations on university campuses and remain small, also spread beyond Khartoum.

One broke out in North Kordofan province in western Sudan where about 200 protesters chanted "No, no to expensiveness" and another in Wad Madani, capital of al-Jazira province near Khartoum, according to witnesses.

Police used teargas and batons to disperse the crowds in Wad Madani protesting against high prices. Kassala, a city in eastern Sudan, also saw a small protest.

Activists have dubbed this Friday "Licking the elbow", a phrase used by the government to mean attempting the impossible.

It is not yet clear whether the protests pose a real threat to the ruling National Congress Party and Bashir, but the tough response by security forces shows how high the stakes are for Sudan's leaders who are struggling to contain multiple armed rebellions as well as the economic crisis.

Sudan has suffered soaring inflation since South Sudan seceded a year ago, taking with it about three quarters of the country's oil, and activists have been trying to use public frustration to build a movement to topple Bashir's government.

Large demonstrations have been relatively rare in Sudan, although Sudan saw popular revolts in 1964 and 1985, and security forces move quickly to disperse protests.

Government moves to cut spending to plug a gaping budget deficit, including scaling back fuel subsidies, sparked the spate of demonstrations over the past fortnight. It is unclear whether there will be large demonstrations on Saturday, which marks the anniversary of Bashir's 23rd year in power.

A state-sponsored ceremony is usually held but by late Friday the government had not yet announced any event.

Coverage of protests in local media has been restricted and scores have been arrested, activists and opposition groups say.

Bashir has dismissed the protesters as a handful of agitators whose aims most Sudanese reject.