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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Sudanese crack down on protests for second time

KHARTOUM, Sept 6 (Reuters) - Sudanese security forces fired tear gas and beat demonstrators with sticks on Wednesday in a crackdown on protests against price increases for basic goods, after thwarting similar protests a week ago.

Riot police closed ranks in Khartoum's main streets to block any gatherings of protesters, who vowed they would not stop until their democratic right to protest peacefully was granted.

"Today we intend to deliver our statement to the presidential palace," said Mariam al-Mahdi, spokesperson of one of the largest opposition parties, the Umma Party.

Lines of riot police carrying metal batons blocked the area where the protest was due to take place and plain-clothes security men hit the crowd with wooden sticks. Dozens of protest organisers had been arrested in the past few days.

Mahdi said senior police and state security officials had called opposition leadership to their headquarters on Tuesday on the pretext of planning the route of the protest.

"But it was a trick. Instead they threatened us that they would hit us and kill us and the blood would run in the streets if we went ahead," she added. State security officials were not immediately available to comment.

Khartoum recently raised prices of goods like petrol and sugar to fill a hole in the 2006 budget.

Last Wednesday, riot police fired teargas at banner-waving demonstrators who took to the streets of central Khartoum to oppose the increases. Lorries filled with heavily armed soldiers drove around the capital in a show of force.

The protests come amid calls for national unity from President Omar Hassan al-Bashir as Khartoum faces off with the international community over a U.N. force in Darfur.

Khartoum's National Congress Party, which dominates government, parliament and the powerful state security apparatus, is on a collision course with the international community over sending U.N. troops to Darfur.

It rejects a Security Council resolution passed last Thursday to deploy more than 20,000 U.N. troops and police to Darfur to take over from a cash-strapped African Union mission.


And they have roused nationalist sentiment in Sudan, calling the U.N. transition a Western invasion that would attract jihadi militants and accusing Washington of attempting regime change.

Western diplomats say the government is on the defensive.

"This is not about national sovereignty but about the survival of this government which created the Darfur crisis and cannot find a way out," said one envoy.

Most of Sudan's opposition parties support a U.N. Darfur mission. Mahdi said officials accused demonstrators of inciting secession and supporting the "external plot" against Sudan.

Others point out that AU forces now in Darfur are also foreign troops invited by Khartoum and that there are more than 10,000 U.N. troops in Sudan's south and even some in the capital under the separate north-south peace deal.

Critics say the government fears U.N. troops would be used to arrest any officials or militia likely to be indicted by the International Criminal Court investigating alleged war crimes.

"Would you sign your own death warrant?" asked Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer and member of parliament.
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