Ethiopia attempts to mediate Sudan crisis after bloodshed

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Ethiopia’s prime minister on Friday urged Sudan’s military rulers and civilian opposition to exercise “bravery” in trying to agree on a transition to democracy after the worst bloodshed since the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who flew to Khartoum from Addis Ababa to try to mediate the country’s crisis, held separate talks with the country’s ruling military council and leaders of the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces, an alliance of protesters and opposition parties.

The visit came days after forces stormed a protest camp outside the Defence Ministry in central Khartoum where demonstrators were demanding civilian rule. Dozens of people have been killed since Monday.

Khaled Omar, a leader of the opposition alliance, said Abiy proposed setting up a transitional council comprised of eight civilians and seven military officers with a rotating presidency.

The opposition demanded that the military rulers take responsibility for the bloodshed, allow an international investigation into the violence and free political prisoners, Omar added.

But instead of releasing prisoners, security forces arrested Mohammad Esmat, a member of the opposition delegation shortly after he met with Abiy, sources from his party said.

The military council could not immediately be reached for comment.

“This amounts to a practical response from the military council that effectively rejects the Ethiopian prime minister’s mediation effort,” Omar told Reuters, adding that the Sudanese opposition would not agree to any deal before all of its conditions are met.

The military council said it was ready to negotiate at any time, state news agency SUNA reported.

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Although no breakthrough was announced at the end of the one-day visit, an adviser to the Ethiopian prime minister said the talks went well and that Abiy would be returning to Sudan soon.

The military council and opposition had been in talks for weeks over who should lead Sudan’s transition to democracy.

But negotiations collapsed after Monday’s violence. The opposition said it could not talk to untrustworthy rulers. Opposition medics say 113 people were killed in the storming of the camp and subsequent crackdown.

The government, however, has put the week’s death toll at 61, including three security personnel.

Abiy made his visit the day after the Ethiopia-headquartered African Union bloc suspended Sudan, backing the opposition’s demand for civilian rule.

He was welcomed by Lieutenant General Shams El Din Kabbashi, spokesman for the Transitional Military Council. Abiy later hosted a meeting with the opposition alliance.

“The military and the people and the political forces need to act with bravery and responsibility in taking quick steps to a democratic, reconciliatory transitional period in the country,” he said in a statement.

Abiy, a reformer who took office last year, has won wide praise for his diplomatic skills, including brokering peace with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbor and long-time foe.

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Stability in Sudan is crucial for a volatile region struggling against Islamist insurgencies from the Horn of Africa to Egypt and Libya. Various powers, including Russia and the Gulf Arab states, are trying to influence its path.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have close ties with the military council, have said they are watching developments with concern and support a renewal of dialogue.

Russia said on Thursday it opposed foreign intervention in Sudan and the authorities in Khartoum must subdue what it described as “extremists,” a Russian news agency reported.

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Sudan was placed on a U.S. list of sponsors of terrorism under Bashir, an Islamist former general accused of war crimes in the western Darfur region.

A doctors’ group linked to the protest movement said hospitals were now overcrowded with people injured in this week’s crackdown. Worsening the situation, five hospitals had been shut down by the feared paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which grew out of Darfur militia, it said.

“There is a great shortage in medical staff, mainly caused by the military militias targeting doctors and preventing them from reaching hospitals and clinics to perform their duty,” it said. “For all these reasons, more and more lives are being lost every day.”

The World Health Organization said some medical staff and patients had been injured during raids into hospitals, and emergency services were being shut down.

Mobile tent clinics set up to treat injured protesters had been set on fire and destroyed while medical equipment had been looted and some women health workers were reportedly raped, it said.

“These actions represent a total and unacceptable violation of international human rights law and must stop,” said Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean.

Rights group Amnesty International and the opposition have blamed the RSF for the violence.

The military council counters that infiltrators are putting on RSF uniforms. It says Monday’s raid was targeting criminals in an area next to the camp, but got out of hand.

Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Lena Masri, Ahmed Tolba and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; writing by Lena Masri; editing by Angus MacSwan, Andrew Cawthorne, William Maclean, Toby Chopra and G Crosse