KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Anti-government protests erupted across Khartoum as Sudanese took to the streets after Friday prayers in the most widespread demonstrations yet against spending cuts unveiled this week.
The demonstrations, now in their sixth day, expanded beyond the core of student activists and spread into several neighborhoods that had been quiet.
The smell of teargas hung in the air and broken rocks covered streets as riot police and demonstrators faced off throughout the city, witnesses said. Demonstrators burned tires and security forces used batons to disperse them.
Large demonstrations have been relatively rare in Sudan, which avoided the “Arab Spring” protest movements which swept through neighboring Egypt and Libya. Security forces usually quickly disperse protests.
But government measures to cut spending to plug a budget gap - including the highly unpopular move of scaling back fuel subsidies - unleashed the protests.
The country has faced soaring inflation since South Sudan seceded a year ago - taking with it about three quarters of the country’s oil production - and activists have been trying to use public frustration to build a movement to topple the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
The potency of street demonstrations runs deep in public consciousness in Sudan, where popular protests toppled military rulers in 1964 and 1985, uprisings known as the October and April Revolutions.
Protesters raced back and forth down dirt roads as police pursued them in large blue trucks and on foot, Reuters television footage showed.
Numbers were hard to verify as pockets of hundreds of protesters swirled and dispersed in the capital, but may have totaled into the thousands throughout the day.
In the first significant demonstration of the day, about 400 to 500 protesters began chanting “the people want to overthrow the regime” as they left the Imam Abdel Rahman mosque in the suburb of Omdurman, activists and two witnesses said.
As security forces gathered, the protesters called for the police to join them, chanting: “Oh police, oh police, how much is your salary and how much is a pound of sugar?”
The police fired teargas and then used batons as they clashed with the protesters, who threw rocks back at them. Witnesses said men in civilian clothes also attacked the demonstrators.
Police were not immediately available for comment.
Spending cuts and food prices have been the main impetus for the protests, but activists say they also share a wider set of complaints with Arab Spring protesters including corruption, police impunity and restrictions on media and other freedoms.
The government, already fighting armed insurgencies in its western Darfur region and in two southern border states, has played down the protests. Police said on Thursday said some people were trying to exaggerate the situation in the media.
The protests have gone almost entirely unmentioned in Sudanese media. Several local television channels broadcast musical concerts on Friday evening.
Unlike previous days, when the demonstrations were led largely by students, the protesters on Friday appeared to encompass a broader segment of the capital’s population.
At one protest in Omdurman, about 100 people chanted “Freedom, freedom” until police fired teargas to disperse them.
Police also fired teargas to break up separate protests in the central neighborhoods of Burri, Khartoum Three and Al-Daim, which had previously been quiet, witnesses said.
Two small protests also broke out in the northern suburb of Bahri, which police dispersed with batons, activists said. A witness confirmed the account.
About 40 people joined one protest in the area, but stopped amid a heavy security presence, while around 100 people burned tires at the other protest until police broke them up.
Online activists said small protests also broke out in the cities of Wad Medani and Sennar and posted images they said were of those demonstrations. It was not possible to independently verify them.
Sudanese officials say they have little choice but to scale back fuel subsidies and take other measures to plug a budget deficit the finance minister has put at about $2.4 billion.
The country had been supposed to continue collecting some revenues from South Sudan’s oil because the landlocked new nation has to export its crude through the north.
But the two failed to set a price, and South Sudan shut down its production in January after Khartoum started confiscating some oil. African Union-brokered talks in Addis Ababa have so far failed to yield a settlement.
Both economies were already reeling from decades of conflict, U.S. trade sanctions and mismanagement.
Editing by Alison Williams