Sudanese security forces used a disturbing and troubling level of force when dealing with protests on Thursday, the US and the UN said.
At least four protesters were killed and nearly 300 others were injured in rallies against military rule in the capital Khartoum, police said on Friday.
The service said 49 policemen, including two officers, were injured in the protests and accused “saboteurs” of leading the rallies into clashes with the police.
“The police leadership regrets and denounces any excesses from all parties which led to casualties and damage to public and private property,” it said.
Thursday's protests were the 11th round of major anti-coup rallies since October 25, when military leader Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan dismissed the civilian-led portion of the government in a move widely regarded as a coup.
The number of fatalities given by the police is one less than that given by a doctors’ group affiliated with the pro-democracy movement, which since 2018 has proved reliable in tallying and verifying victims of political violence. The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors said a fifth protester died on Friday after he was hit in the chest by a tear gas canister the previous day.
Witnesses said security forces, including military troops and members of a government-sanctioned militia, used excessive force to contain the demonstrations, which involved tens of thousands of people. They used tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and live rounds.
The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors said security forces chased protesters on to side streets and inside a hospital. In one case, they stopped an ambulance from taking a seriously wounded protester to hospital, leaving medics no choice but to use a private car, the committee said.
The Khartoum State Ministry of Health said security forces in Omdurman had also prevented ambulances from carrying the injured to nearby hospitals, and said that the "scale of repression exceeded expectations".
“They acted with extraordinary cruelty,” Sulaima Ishaq, a prominent activist who runs a state agency to combat violence against women, told The National from Khartoum.
“I have seen boys as young as nine beaten up by policemen using truncheons and sticks. They acted like they have a blood vendetta with the protesters,” said Ms Ishaq, who on Thursday witnessed the worst clashes in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman. She said there were several reports of sexual abuse by members of the security forces against female protesters.
“I have been to all the rallies this month, but I have never seen the level of violence I saw on Thursday," one witness told The National.
There were also several attacks by members of the security forces against journalists covering the protests. Footage broadcast by the regional television network Al Hadath on Thursday night showed security men storming the station’s Khartoum office and kicking and beating employees with sticks before leading several of them away.
The use of excessive and lethal force was decried by the US and the UN,
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that he was troubled by reports of lethal force. Washington, he said, "stands with the people of Sudan, as they demand freedom, peace, and justice".
The UN Special Representative to Sudan, Volker Perthes, said he was "deeply disturbed" by the deaths. "All people have the right to express themselves peacefully; media have to report freely," he said.
The Coptic Orthodox Church in Sudan said it was cancelling new year's mass on Friday night out of respect for the families of the dead and wounded in Thursday's violence. Several well-known entertainers also said they would not perform in New Year's parties for the same reason.
A country in crisis
Thursday’s fatalities took to 53 the number of protesters killed by security forces since army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan seized power in a coup on October 25, upending the country’s democratic transition and triggering strong international condemnations and punitive actions.
The reinstatement on November 21 of Abdalla Hamdok, who was dismissed along with his government on October 25, fuelled the protests and cost the former UN economist the support of the pro-democracy movement.
Gen Al Burhan handed him responsibility for forming a new Cabinet of independent technocrats, but five weeks later he has yet to succeed.
There has also been growing speculation that Mr Hamdok intended to resign, a move which could throw the nation deeper into turmoil.
The pro-democracy movement is demanding that the military quits politics altogether and that Sudan be ruled by a civilian government and that the military and security agencies be placed under civilian oversight.
Al Hadath TV on Thursday night quoted an adviser to Gen Al Burhan as saying the military would not allow anyone to pull the country into chaos and that continued protests were a "physical, psychological, and mental drain on the country" and "would not achieve a political solution".
In a desperate attempt to suppress the unrest, Sudan's Sovereignty Council, which is led by Gen Al Burhan, has reinstated powers of arrests, surveillance and searches to the intelligence service. The intelligence service justified the decision by saying that the political situation could turn catastrophic.
These powers were taken away from the intelligence service after the removal by the military in April 2019 of dictator Omar Al Bashir in the wake of four months of protests against his 29-year rule.
A spokesman for Gen Al Burhan said the move was necessary to save the country from falling into chaos.