KHARTOUM (AFP) – More than 800 protesters have been arrested in anti-government demonstrations held across Sudan since last month, a minister said on Monday, as hundreds gathered at a rally backing President Omar al-Bashir.
Deadly protests have rocked Sudan since December 19 last year, when unrest first broke out over a government decision to raise the price of bread.
Authorities said at least 19 people including two security personnel have been killed in clashes during the demonstrations, but rights group Amnesty International has put the death toll at 37.
Interior Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman on Monday gave details to Parliament of arrests made during the protests and violence that marked several rallies.
“The total number of protesters arrested until now is 816,” Osman said.
The figure was the first given by officials for those detained since the rallies erupted initially in towns and villages and later spread to the capital Khartoum.
Osman told lawmakers there had been a total of 381 protests reported since December 19 last year. He said that 118 buildings were destroyed in the protests, including 18 that belonged to police, while 194 vehicles were set on fire including 15 that belonged to international organisations.
“The demonstrations began peacefully, but some thugs with a hidden agenda used them to indulge in looting and stealing,” the minister said, adding that the situation across Sudan was now “calm and stable”.
Protests broke out when the government raised the price of a small loaf of bread from one Sudanese pound to three (from two to six United States cents).
Several buildings and offices of Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) were torched in the initial violence.
Sudanese authorities have launched a crackdown on opposition leaders, activists and journalists to prevent the spread of protests.
Sudan has been facing a mounting economic crisis over the past year led by an acute shortage of foreign currency.
The cost of food items and medicines has more than doubled and inflation has hit 70 per cent.
Food and fuel shortages have been regularly reported across several cities, including Khartoum.
Most anti-government rallies have been spearheaded by professionals like doctors, teachers and engineers, but they have been swiftly broken up by riot police firing tear gas at protesters.
On Monday, crowds of protesters gathered in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan but they were quickly dispersed by riot police, witnesses said.
As the anti-government unrest rumbled on, the first rally backing Bashir was held in the eastern city of Kassala.
Hundreds of people from Kassala and neighbouring towns and villages gathered in front of the local governorate to express their support for Bashir.
Several supporters were carrying banners that read “Bashir, we want you to stay”, witnesses said.
“We want Bashir as President in order to maintain security in the country,” Mohameddin Issa, a resident of Kassala participating in the rally told AFP by telephone.
“Security is the top priority, after that comes food…but I also believe that the problem of food will be solved soon.”