By Nadine Awadalla
KHARTOUM (Reuters) – The deputy leader of Sudan’s military council voiced his enthusiasm for democratic elections in front of an audience of tribal leaders and senior diplomats on Saturday, while seeking to deflect blame for violence in Khartoum this week.
The clashes threatened to derail the council’s talks with an alliance of protest and opposition groups pushing for a swift transition to civilian rule after the fall of former President Omar al-Bashir last month.
Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the youthful leader of Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), has emerged as the most prominent member of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) that ousted and arrested Bashir following months of protests.
Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti, has considerable power. His RSF are deployed across Khartoum, and he is close to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which between them pledged $3 billion in aid to Sudan late last month.
On Saturday he spoke for nearly 20 minutes after breaking the Ramadan fast to an audience including the top official in the U.S. embassy and the Saudi ambassador, as well as local and international media.
“Democracy is consultation … that’s it, we want real democracy,” he said, in a speech punctuated by applause and laughter. “We want a man who comes in through the ballot box … We want free and fair elections.”
Many of those present were from Sudan’s western Darfur region. Human rights groups accused militias that Hemedti commanded of genocide in the war that began there in 2003, allegations Bashir’s government denied.
On Monday and Wednesday, violence broke out in areas of Khartoum where security forces had been trying to clear barricades erected by protesters, including around a sit-in outside the Defence Ministry that started on April 6.
Protesters are pushing for civilian rule, and for justice over the deaths of dozens of demonstrators since December.
Some accused the RSF of shooting at demonstrations last week, and witnesses saw troops in RSF marked vehicles opening fire.
Hemedti said those responsible had been found inside Khartoum University and the sit-in.
“These people have been arrested and confessed on camera,” he said, adding that they would be presented to the public later.
At least four people were killed on Monday and dozens wounded. After at least nine more people were wounded on Wednesday, the TMC said it was suspending the talks for 72 hours.
Talks are due to resume on Sunday evening. The two sides have agreed to a transition lasting three years before elections, with a legislative council on which opposition and protest groups would have two-thirds of the seats.
However, they have been split over the balance of a mixed military-civilian sovereign council that would hold ultimate power.
Bashir along with senior allies is being held in prison in Khartoum. Hemedti said officials from Bashir’s regime who had fled abroad would be brought back to face justice.
“We cannot arrest the entire National Congress Party. There is no prison that would contain it with its seven million members,” he added, referring to Bashir’s political party.
(Additional reporting by Hesham Haj Ali; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Daniel Wallis)