By BASSAM HATOUM and SAMY MAGDY Associated Press
KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Shops were closed and streets were empty across Sudan on Sunday, the first day of a general strike called for the start of the workweek by protest leaders demanding the resignation of the ruling military council.
The Sudanese Professionals Association urged people to stay home to protest the deadly crackdown last week when security forces violently dispersed the group’s main sit-in outside the military headquarters in the capital, Khartoum.
The protesters say more than 100 people have been killed since the crackdown began June 3, including at least four slain by security forces on Sunday.
The protesters hope that their strike and campaign of civil disobedience will force the military to hand over power to civilians. The military leaders ousted longtime President Omar al-Bashir in April after four months of mass rallies. The generals have refused demonstrators’ demands for an immediate move to civilian rule, instead pushing for a transitional power-sharing arrangement.
The SPA posted photos of what it said was an empty Khartoum International Airport, adding that airport workers and pilots are taking part in the civil disobedience.
Other videos online showed offices and businesses closed and light traffic, in both Khartoum and the Red Sea city of Port Sudan.
SPA activist Dura Gambo said at midday that participation in the general strike “exceeded our expectations.”
“All private and some government banks joined the strike. Cities across the country are almost empty,” she said.
The head of the leading opposition Umma party, Sadek al-Mahdi, warned of escalation from both the protest leaders and the military council.
“The mutual escalation damages the county. We have been working to adjust the strike and disobedience to contain the escalation,” he said in televised comments.
An Associated Press journalist saw a heavy deployment of troops from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces in several parts of Khartoum and its sister city of Omdurman. There are long lines for fuel in several areas in the capital.
The internet remains cut off in Khartoum, and other types of communications also are restricted, with reports of mobile network services heavily disrupted.
Security forces removed barricades from main roads and opened the sit-in area outside the military’s headquarters for the first time in a week. The SPA urged protesters to avoid clashes with the RSF.
The RSF grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias used by al-Bashir in the Darfur conflict in the early 2000s. Protesters accuse it of leading the nationwide crackdown, and the SPA has called for the force to be disbanded.
The Sudan Doctors’ Committee, the medical affiliate of the SPA, said that of the four people killed Sunday, one was a young man who was shot by the RSF in Khartoum’s Bahri neighborhood. Two others died of their wounds after RSF forces beat them, and a fourth was shot in Omdurman, it said.
The committee says 118 people have been killed since June 3. The military-run Health Ministry has offered a lower death toll of 61, including 49 civilians and three security forces in Khartoum.
The World Health Organization said Saturday that 784 people were wounded in Khartoum since June 3, although it added that the actual number could be higher because not all cases are reported or recorded.
The opposition Sudanese Congress Party posted a video of what it said was a funeral in Bahri. “Blood for blood. We do not accept blood money,” the mourners chanted.
The SPA said peaceful, civil disobedience and a general strike “is the fastest and most effective way to topple the military council … and to hand over power to a transitional civilian authority.” It urged international agencies to refrain from dealing with the military council.
The SPA said security forces have arrested and intimidated activists, bankers, doctors, air traffic workers and other professionals in recent days.
“Dozens of airport workers have been arrested by intelligence and the RSF since Monday. We do not know their whereabouts. New workers have been seen in the past days to replace those who took part in the strike,” an airport worker told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal.
The state-run SUNA news agency quoted authorities as saying the airport was functioning normally and that all workers had reported for duty Sunday.
The Sudan Pharmacists Central Committee, which is also part of the SPA, said RSF forces raided a government health agency in Khartoum that supplies medications and other care needs for patients across Sudan. The RSF has been accused of targeting hospitals and health centers caring for wounded protesters.
The Umma party said Saturday that security forces had arrested one of its leaders, Adel al-Mufti, along with other opposition figures, including Mohammed Esmat, a negotiator for the protesters.
Esmat was detained after meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Friday. Ahmed met separately with the ruling generals and the protest leaders in an effort to revive talks.
A spokesman for the military council did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis told the faithful in St. Peter’s Square that the news from Sudan is causing “pain and worry.” He prayed for the end of violence and that the common good would be sought through dialogue.