Hundreds of people gathered in Sudan‘s capital on Wednesday in a show of support for President Omar al-Bashir’s embattled government, after deadly anti-government protests erupted across the country last month.
The rally backing Bashir, who has ruled Sudan since 1989 when he swept to power in an Islamist-backed coup, came as rival protesters launched new demonstrations in the city of Omdurman.
Hundreds of riot policemen, soldiers and security agents, some carrying machine guns, were deployed around the site of the pro-Bashir rally in the Green Yard, a large open ground in Khartoum, an AFP correspondent reported.
Dressed in a khaki shirt and trousers and waving a stick, a smiling Bashir greeted the cheering crowd as men and women, who arrived in buses from early in the morning, whistled and waved flags.
“This gathering sends a message to those who think that Sudan will become like other countries that have been destroyed,” Bashir told a cheering crowd.
“We will stop anyone who destroys our properties.”
The rally was the first held in Khartoum in support of Bashir since protests erupted.
In the initial protests that broke out in towns and villages before spreading to Khartoum, several buildings of Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party were torched.
Angry demonstrators have taken to the streets since December 19 after a government decision to triple the price of bread at a time when the country has been hit by an acute shortage of foreign currency and inflation of 70 percent.
Authorities say at least 19 people, including two security personnel, have been killed during the demonstrations, but Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 40.
Crowds chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and “Yes, Yes Bashir we will follow you” welcomed the president at the rally with a group of ministers and top officials.
As soon as Bashir arrived, mobile phone networks and the internet were shut down in and around the rally site.
Reporting form Khartoum, Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan said: “Bashir has been very defiant over the past few weeks, saying he will continue to rule until elections in 2020. But protesters say they will protest until the president steps down.”
“There are concerns that more lives will be lost as the government continues to use what has been described by some international governments as excessive force,” she added.
Soon after the pro-Bashir rally ended, groups of protesters took to the street in Omdurman, the twin city of Khartoum, for a yet another anti-government demonstration.
About 300 protesters chanting “Freedom, Peace and Justice” blocked a key road in Omdurman, but were quickly confronted with tear gas as riot police moved in to disperse them.
More than 800 protesters have been arrested since the unrest began, officials say, insisting that the situation has now stabilised even as protests rumbled on.
Opposition leaders, activists and journalists have been detained as part of a crackdown to prevent protests spreading.
Britain, Norway, the United States and Canada reiterated their concern over the situation in Sudan in a joint statement issued Tuesday.
“We are appalled by reports of deaths and serious injury to those exercising their legitimate right to protest, as well as reports of the use of live ammunition against protesters,” the statement said.
“We urge the government of Sudan to ensure that a fully transparent and independent investigation into the deaths of protesters takes place as soon as possible, and that those responsible are held to account.”
The governments also called on Khartoum to release all those detained without charge, warning that the government’s action in the issue “will have an impact” on engagements with the governments of the four countries.
Is it Sudan’s version of the Arab Spring?
Al Jazeera and news agencies