By Khalid Abdelaziz
KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudanese security forces fired tear gas to try to disperse thousands of demonstrators converged on President Omar al-Bashir’s residence in Khartoum on Saturday, in what appeared the largest protest for his ouster yet, witnesses said.
Regular protests against Bashir’s nearly 30 years in office began in December. Saturday’s protest was intended to deliver a message to the defence ministry demanding the armed forces side with the demonstrators.
Thousands of demonstrators evaded security forces who had deployed in large numbers around the city centre and managed to reach the compound, which also houses the defence ministry and security services’ headquarters.
They waved Sudanese flags and chanted slogans demanding “freedom, peace and justice” as they gathered outside the gates of the compound, where soldiers stood guard.
“There are crowds as far as the eye can see,” said a Reuters witness at the scene, adding that it looked to be the largest single gathering since the protests began on Dec. 19.
While army soldiers made no attempt to harass the demonstrators, witnesses said security forces were working to disperse them.
They said they boxed in the demonstrators, closing off roads leading to the defence ministry and Bashir’s residence and blocking bridges connecting Omdurman, on the other side of the Nile and Khartoum Bahri, the northern half of the capital, to stop more people from joining the crowd.
Then they tried to disperse the demonstrators with tear gas, witnesses said, but most stood their ground.
Mohamed Saleh, a university professor among the demonstrators outside the defence ministry, said the protest was a message to Bashir that the protests won’t stop.
“Today, we won and we are confident that the regime will fall,” the 63-year-old Saleh said, estimating the crowd to be at more than 100,000 people.
Activists called Saturday’s protests to mark the anniversary of mass demonstrations in 1985 that drove the military to topple former strongman, President Jaafar Nimeiri.
Sudanese often refer to the army’s intervention to depose Nimeiri after protests against his rule as an indication that the armed forces eventually sides with the people when they rise against their rulers.
Nimeiri’s downfall paved the way for national elections and a civilian government which Bashir ousted in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989. Bashir had since run and was elected president in repeated elections which his critics say were neither fair nor free.
Representing the most sustained challenge to Bashir since he took power in 1989, the wave of protests were triggered by price rises and cash shortages but evolved into demonstrations against his long rule.
Sudan’s protests began before Algerian demonstrations that forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down. But unlike Algerian demonstrations, Sudanese protests had been small, often comprising dozens or hundreds of people quickly dispersed by security forces.
In February, Bashir declared a state of emergency in the country of 40 million, sacked his government and state governors in a series of moves aimed at tightening his control over the country.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Mark Potter, Helen Popper and Alexandra Hudson)