About 20 people have been killed and many injured during attempts by troops loyal to Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, to disperse demonstrators demanding the end of his 30-year regime, according to opposition leaders.
The bloody clashes since Saturday have exposed fissures in the regime’s security apparatus as rank-and-file soldiers have come out on the side of protesters pushing for what they call a “Sudanese revolution”.
On Tuesday, the feared security services and militia loyal to Mr Bashir tried to disperse crowds gathered outside the army headquarters before the army pushed them back and blocked the road.
A video circulating on social media showed an army officer telling protesters that some soldiers had disobeyed orders and were standing with the people.
Ahmad Mahmoud, an activist who spent the night at the sit-in, said people had been attacked by the security services and a militia known as the Rapid Support Forces, former Janjaweed fighters accused of committing crimes in Darfur.
“The army fired back as we hid. We ducked inside the naval force headquarters,” said Mr Mahmoud, adding that the army had seized three trucks from which soldiers had been firing tear gas at demonstrators.
Sadiq al-Mahdi, a former prime minister and a leading opposition figure, said masked gunmen had killed up to 20 people since Saturday, including five soldiers, according to Reuters. He also called for “the handing of power to a select military command that is qualified to negotiate with representatives of the people to build a new system to achieve peace and democracy”.
Estimates of the size of the crowd varied wildly, but video footage appeared to show more people than on the previous night, with tens of thousands of demonstrators, many of them waving lit-up mobile phones like candles.
"The same thing happened as the night before," said Rashid Saeed, a spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has been at the forefront of the anti-regime protests that started in December. "The army tried to protect us," Mr Rashid added.
The months-long demonstrations were initially sparked by public fury over rising bread prices but have since spread to 35 cities and escalated into a nationwide push to topple Mr Bashir and his government.
Protest organisers, who include many doctors, lawyers and teachers, say they are not pressing for a coup, but want the army to support a transition towards genuine democracy. Crowds in the capital, Khartoum, have been trying to get the army to defect, shouting "one nation, one army".
The new phase of the stand-off unfolded only days after mass demonstrations in Algeria forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down.
One obstacle to Mr Bashir's removal is the fact that he faces charges by the International Criminal Court over alleged genocide and human rights abuses in Darfur, a region in western Sudan. Protest leaders say they do not support immunity for the president. Several countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have offered Mr Bashir exile.
On Monday night, Mr Bashir held a meeting with his ruling National Congress party for the first time since he declared a state of emergency in February.
One potential member of a post-Bashir transitional government said the situation was extremely unpredictable. Until now, Sudan’s opposition had been weak and fractured, he said, meaning there was no coherent political force waiting to assume power.
The best way forward, he said, was a transition in which the army would play a role, to allow democratic forces to organise, pending future elections.
Activists say more than 60 people have been killed since protests began.
António Guterres, UN secretary-general, on Monday urged all parties in Sudan to “exercise utmost restraint and avoid violence”, Reuters reported. He called for the release of all detained protesters, said Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for Mr Guterres. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019