September 25, 2013 (KHARTOUM) - The Sudanese government announced on Wednesday that orders were issued to the army to deploy to public government buildings and gas stations to protect from protesters who continued demonstrating against the decision to cut fuel subsidies.
- A man walks past a burning petrol station during a protest against a cut in fuel subsidies in the Omdurman district of Khartoum in this still image taken from video said to be taken September 24, 2013 (REUTERS/Kidintakar Radio Station/Storyful/via Reuters TV)
Ahmed Bilal, the country’s information minister and government spokesperson, told the pro-government Ashorooq TV that the army was asked to move in against "outlaws".
"What we see confirms that they are not peaceful protesters but outlaws," Bilal said.
He also acknowledged reports of an internet shutdown saying that the government has exercised "plenty of self-restraint" but promised that the cyber-blackout will soon end.
The spokesperson accused unspecified elements of inciting the demonstrations which started on Monday in Sudan’s central state of Gezira and spread later to other parts of the country including Khartoum, Omdurman, Darfur and Eastern Sudan.
In Gezira state capital of Wad Madani, Bilal said, the protesters attacked more than 37 policemen before adding that only 5 people were killed on both sides.
Bilal also claimed that some of the protesters were carrying knives and firearms. He also denied reports that some of the forces joined hands with protesters.
The Sudanese 1st vice-president Ali Osman Taha who was addressing an event in Khartoum today, said that his government does not fear those demonstrations and insisted that the economic measures decided this week will remain in place.
But in an apparent bid to prevent escalation, the Khartoum state government announced that schools will be closed till next Monday. Many of the protests were comprised of students, eyewitnesses said.
This follows announcement of several universities this week that they will close in light of the unrest.
CONFLICTING DEATH FIGURES
Today’s demonstrations spread to down-town Khartoum and saw protesters setting fire in police stations and even buildings belonging to the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in south of the capital as well as gas stations.
Police used tear gas to disperse the protesters who threw rocks at them, burned tires and even blocked a main road in the capital.
The protestors chanted slogans which included "The people want the fall of the regime!", "Freedom, Freedom!".
It has been hard to ascertain the number of deaths in today’s demonstrations given the internet shut-down and suspension of transportation services. Businesses and shops were also closed as merchants feared looting.
The director of Omdurman hospital Osama Mortada told the BBC’s Arabic Service that 21 people sent to his hospital had died, and that about 80 were injured.
"All have gunshot wounds, some in the chest," he said.
Opposition figures put the death toll between 50-80 but there was no independent verification.
Despite government assertions that police did not use force, several eyewitnesses told Sudan Tribune they have seen dead friends or family members with bullet shots on their bodies.
Another eye witness in north Khartoum told Sudan Tribune that he saw security agents in plain-clothes fire live ammunition at protesters and beating some of them violently.
A Reuters reporter saw police fire tear-gas grenades into a crowd while hundreds of officers and plain-clothes security agents armed with guns or batons rushed to the city center. Others were sitting on the roof of government buildings. Security agents drove away some 20 protesters in pick-up trucks.
US CALLS FOR END TO VIOLENCE
The United States Embassy in Khartoum issued a statement today saying that is aware of the protests in Sudan with violence and damage to properties that ensued.
"We call on the authorities to respect the civil liberties of those protesting and, in particular, their right to assemble peacefully and express their views. We urge all parties to refrain from the use of violence," the embassy said.
"During this challenging time for Sudan, it is vital that all sides exercise caution and restraint" the statement read.
The Sudanese embassy in Washington said in a press release that the lifting of fuel subsidies was due to the US economic sanctions.
"Due to continuing economic sanctions against the peoples of Sudan, the Government of Sudan lifted subsidies for gasoline. Some citizens violently protested this necessary economic measure by burning government buildings, gasoline stations, shopping malls and private property. Some also attacked the police, who defended themselves while protecting public and private property," the embassy said.
It also denied imposing an internet blackout.
"The Government of Sudan did not block internet access. Among other targets, violent protesters burned facilities of Canar Telecommunications Company, which hosts the core base of internet services for Sudan. These fires resulted in continuing internet black outs across Sudan," it added.
"The Government of Sudan and Canar Telecom have now partially restored internet service and will work until internet access is fully restored".
Renesys Corp., a company that maps the pathways of the Internet, said according to Associated Press that it could not confirm whether the blackout was government-orchestrated. But the outage recalls a similarly dramatic outage in Egypt, Sudan’s neighbour, when authorities shut off Internet access during that country’s 2011 uprising.
"It’s either a government-directed thing or some very catastrophic technological failure that just happens to coincide with violent riots happening in the city," said senior analyst Doug Madory. He said it was almost a "total blackout."
ECONOMY ON THE BRINK
On Monday, the Sudanese cabinet formally endorsed a decision that has been circulated the night before by which prices of gasoline and diesel were increased by almost 100%.
A gallon of gasoline now costs 21 Sudanese pounds ($4.77 based on official exchange rate) compared to 12.5 pounds ($2.84).
Diesel also went from 8 pounds ($1.81) a gallon to 14 pounds ($3.18).
Cooking gas cylinders are now are priced at 25 pounds ($5.68) from 15 pounds ($3.40).
The cabinet also raised the US dollar exchange rate for importing purposes to 5.7 pounds compared to 4.4. The black market rate now stands at 8.2.
Senior Sudanese officials including president Omer Hassan Al-Bashir have defended the measure saying the only alternative would be an economic collapse as the state budget can no longer continue offering the generous subsidies on petroleum products to its people.
Sudan’s oil boom that fuelled an unprecedented economic growth and a relative prosperity over the last decade came to an end with the independence of South Sudan which housed around three quarters of the crude reserves prior to the country’s partition.
Last year the Sudanese government rolled out an austerity package that saw a scaling back of fuel and sugar subsidies as well as cutting the number of ministries. It also effectively devalued the beleaguered currency with the goal of reducing exchange rate parity with the black market.
But the economic picture remained bleak with inflation rates at double digit figures which pushed ordinary Sudanese to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for food and other basic commodities.
The Sudanese pound also continued its free fall against the US dollar reaching 8.2 in the black market this week compared to an official rate of 4.4.
The decline of the local currency and shortage of Forex meant that Sudan will pay more to import food which is vital to plug the deficiency in local food production. It also hurt businessmen and foreign companies that desperately seek to repatriate profits abroad.
This year’s round of subsidy cuts nearly doubled gasoline and diesel prices which is sure to be felt across the board and will likely create a domino effect on prices of other goods and services such as transportation tariffs which were already increased by 25% in Khartoum.