Sudan protesters face new challenges after military retaliation

Sit-ins during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in Sudan ended in a violent crackdown by the military Monday. After removing Omar al-Bashir from power in April, pro-democracy protesters have pushed for three years of civilian-led authority before the next elections.

A protester flashes the victory sign in front of burning tires and debris near Khartoum's army headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan, June 3, 2019. Protesters have announced a suspension of talks with the military regarding a transitional government.

Thousands of Sudanese pro-democracy protesters remained defiant of the country's military rulers Tuesday, a day after security forces violently cleared away their main sit-in site in the capital. Protest organizers say 35 people died in the crackdown.

Activists turned prayers marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday into political protests, with thousands gathering outside mosques in several neighborhoods around Khartoum and its twin city, Omdurman, across the Nile River.

After prostrating in prayer, some worshippers chanted, "Freedom, peace, justice and civilian government are the people's choice," according to videos posted online.

"We have no choice but to continue our protests and civil disobedience until the fall of the military council," said Mohammed Yousef al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has spearheaded the protests.

The bloody dispersal of the sit-in Monday poses a new challenge to the protest movement, which now aims to show it can keep up pressure in the streets after its central rallying point was wiped out. The movement succeeded in forcing the military in April to remove Sudan's longtime strongman, Omar al-Bashir. It then kept its sit-in going, demanding the generals who took power hand over authority to civilians.

Security forces in the city center barred access to the former site of the sit-in outside the military's headquarters, the scene of Monday's violence. But an Associated Press journalist saw protesters building low barricades of stones and metal fencing on some streets in suburbs of Khartoum.

Even the date of Eid al-Fitr – a holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of fasting, Ramadan – became a center of contention. The date changes each year by the lunar calendar and is determined by sightings of the new moon.

The military announced it would begin Wednesday. But protest leaders said astronomers at Khartoum University had determined that Tuesday was the first day of the holiday and called on supporters to come out to "pray for the martyrs."

Mr. Mustafa accused the military of picking the date so people would stay in their homes fasting on Tuesday, a day after the bloodshed, rather than going to the Eid prayers traditionally held outside.

For weeks, the military and protest leaders were negotiating over the make-up of a transitional council meant to run the country for three years before elections.

But after Monday's violence, the military council's head, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, announced it would unilaterally form an interim government and stage elections sooner, within months, and under international supervision. He said any agreements reached in the negotiations were cancelled.

A written version of his televised speech released in a statement said elections would be held within seven months. However, in the broadcast, he said elections would be within nine months. The different timelines could not immediately be reconciled.

Protesters rejected the move because it would put the military in charge of running the election and reiterated their call for three years of civilian-led authority.

"We are waiting impatiently for elections, but in such a situation, we do not need any military government or any elections," one protester, Mohammed Adam Ibrahim, told the AP.

Mr. Mustafa, of the SPA, called for the international community and the United Nations Security Council not to recognize General Burhan or the military authorities and put pressure on the generals to hand over power to a civilian-led authority. The U.N. Security Council is set to discuss the crackdown in Sudan on Tuesday afternoon in a closed-door session requested by the United Kingdom and Germany.

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called for "an impartial, independent" U.N. inquiry into the deadly crackdown. "Key international actors should impose targeted punitive sanctions against those responsible," said Jehanne Henry, the group's associate Africa director.

General Burhan has said military leaders would investigate Monday's violence. He didn't mention security forces. He said protest leaders bore blame for the volatile situation because they have been "extending the negotiations and seeking to exclude other political and security forces" from participating in any transitional government, accusations rejected by Mr. Mustafa, the SPA spokesman.

Activists said the assault appeared to be a coordinated move, with other forces attacking similar sit-ins in Khartoum's sister city of Omdurman and the eastern city of al-Qadarif.

In Cairo, Egypt's national airline, EgyptAir, said it had canceled two flights to Khartoum scheduled for late Monday and Tuesday.

The Sudanese Pilots Association, which is part of the Sudanese Professionals Association, said it would take part in a civilian disobedience called for by the protest leaders. The move by the pilots' union could severely affect international flights to Sudan.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writer Bassam Hatoum reported this story in Khartoum and AP writer Samy Magdy reported from Cairo.

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