Sudan’s embattled president, Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, remained defiant Tuesday in the face of nationwide protests demanding his ouster and U.S. concern over “credible reports” that his security forces had killed more than three dozen demonstrators.
In a televised address, he accused “traitors, agents, mercenaries and infiltrators” of exploiting the country’s “economic difficulties to do sabotage in the service of Sudan’s enemies.”
“We know we have economic problems … but this is something we are capable of handling,” Bashir, who has ruled Sudan for 29 years, said as he waved his cane and insisted Western nations had besieged Sudan because of its adherence to Islam.
He was speaking from Wad Madani, a small city south of the capital, Khartoum, where hundreds of demonstrators were attempting to march on the presidential palace.
People have taken to the streets across the country since Wednesday after subsidy cuts ordered by the International Monetary Fund spurred acute shortages of fuel and other commodities and more than doubled the price of bread.
“In Sudan our diet has bread as the centerpiece,” Yusuf Hag, a 29-year-old designer in Khartoum, said by phone Tuesday. “And you can spend hours waiting for bread, and then when you get to the head of the line they tell you there isn’t any more.”
Britain, Norway and Canada joined the U.S. on Monday in calling on authorities to “avoid the use of live fire on protesters, arbitrary detention, and censorship of the media” and to investigate alleged abuses, according to post on the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy.
Amnesty International said it had “credible reports” that security forces had used live ammunition on demonstrators, killing a total of 37 over the last week. The government put the toll at 12.
The roots of the economic crisis date to 2011, when the oil-rich southern region seceded to form South Sudan, depleting the government in Khartoum of three-quarters of its oil revenue.
Since then, Sudan’s 40 million people have been buffeted by a severe currency devaluation as well as a liquidity shortage. Long lines at ATMs, gas stations and bakeries are common.
Over the last year the value of the Sudanese pound has plunged 86% against the U.S. dollar.
Though protests were spurred by economic difficulties, they have turned political, with many blaming Bashir for decades of mismanagement and corruption.
The march Tuesday in Khartoum was organized by the country’s professional associations, with the aim of delivering a memorandum to Bashir’s palace demanding he immediately step down.
Activists uploaded videos depicting hundreds of people congregated in a central area of the capital, chanting the slogan of the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept the Arab world in 2011: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
Protesters also shouted: “Freedom, peace and justice, revolution is the choice of the people.”
“These aren’t protests against the high cost of living only,” Obai Tayeb, a 22-year-old engineering graduate in Khartoum who had participated in the march, said over the WhatsApp messaging service. “They’re protesters against 29 years of dictatorship, oppression, injustice, corruption and murder.”
Police, who were present in large numbers along the march’s designated path, stopped demonstrators from reaching the palace and blocked disparate groups from joining one another, said Yasser Awad, a 24-year-old activist who had filmed the march.
“Regime forces fired tear gas and shot live bullets over the heads of protesters to terrorize them,” he said over WhatsApp. “The moment one group was dispersed, another would start chanting, until it got to the point regime forces started to beat and arbitrarily arrest people.”
Awad said that two of his relatives had been badly beaten by police and that he feared his brother, whom he had not seen since the march, had been caught in the police dragnet.
Activists also uploaded videos of what they said were protesters wounded by bullets and security forces roaming the city’s streets in pickup trucks armed with heavy machine guns.
One video purported to show bullets striking the offices of Al-Sudani newspaper, with staff members cursing at police. Activists said one journalist, Yassir Abadallah, was taken to a hospital after being assaulted by police.
Another clip depicted a bloodied protester being carried into a clinic, and a picture taken by Awad showed blood on a sidewalk.
The Times could not independently confirm the authenticity of the images.
Bashir has long used force to subdue protests against his rule, which began after he ousted the government of Sadek Mahdi, now head of the top opposition party in the country, in 1989.
He has been accused by the International Criminal Court of bearing individual criminal responsibility for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the western region of Darfur beginning in 2003.
In 2013, security forces killed more than 200 people demonstrating against high prices and poor living conditions. Many others were arrested and tortured.
Protests in January of this year were also quelled using deadly force.
Nevertheless, demonstrators said they had no intention of backing down.
“People have reached the phase of ‘victory or death,’ because the regime is so reviled,” Awad said.
“It don’t know if the people can win on their own against the regime,” he said. “We need international interference. It’s honestly horrifying here.”