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Sudan protesters say 40 bodies pulled from Nile in capital

Worshippers gather at a mosque behind a roadblock set by protesters on a main street in the Sudanese capital Khartoum to stop military vehicles from driving through the area on Wednesday, June 5, 2019. The death toll in Sudan amid a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and the dispersal of their peaceful sit-in earlier this week in the capital climbed on Wednesday, protest organizers said.

AP

By BASSAM HATOUM AND SAMY MAGDY | Associated Press | Published: June 5, 2019

KHARTOUM, Sudan — More than 40 bodies of people slain by Sudanese security forces were pulled from the Nile River in the capital of Khartoum, organizers of pro-democracy demonstrations said Wednesday, and new clashes brought the death toll in three days of the ruling military's crackdown to 108.

The Sudan Doctors Committee, one of the protest groups, reported eight more deaths by late Wednesday and said at least 509 people had been wounded.

Word about the retrieval of the bodies came as Sudan's ruling general called for a resumption of negotiations with the protest leaders, which they promptly rejected. They said the generals cannot be serious about talks while troops keep killing protesters.

A spokesman for the protesters said that instead they would continue their demonstrations and strikes seeking to pressure the military into handing over power to a civilian authority.

The reported discovery of the bodies in the Nile suggested that Monday's violent dispersal of the protest movement's main sit-in camp, outside military headquarters, was even bloodier than initially believed. The attack on the camp was led by a notorious paramilitary unit called the Rapid Support Forces, along with other troops who waded into the camp, opening fire and beating protesters.

During the mayhem, the Doctors Committee said witnesses reported seeing bodies loaded into military vehicles to be dumped into the river. The camp was not far from the Blue Nile, just upstream from where it joins the White Nile and then flows north through Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean.

The committee said in a statement that a day earlier, militiamen of the Rapid Support Forces were seen pulling 40 bodies from the river and taking them away. It said it was not known where they were taken.

One activist, Amal al-Zein, said the number could be even higher. She said activists and private citizens had pulled dozens more bodies from the Nile in areas near the sit-in and took them to a hospital morgue.

"Some bodies have wounds from bullets, others seemed to have beaten and thrown in the Nile," she said.

On Monday, the Doctors Committee put the death toll from the crackdown at 40. Another 10 were reported killed in clashes Tuesday in Khartoum and Omdurman, the capital's twin city across the Nile, and farther south in the White Nile state.

At least 18 more were killed in clashes or died of earlier wounds Wednesday, the Doctors Committee said late in the day. The committee said it feared the final death toll would be much higher.

Protests continued in Omdurman and Khartoum's central Bahri and Buri district, where clashes erupted with the Rapid Support Forces, activists said.

"In Buri, there were lots of shootings and tear gas," said Hashim al-Sudani, an activist. "They tried to force people into narrow streets" to beat them.

The crackdown has turned a tense but relatively peaceful standoff between the military and the protest movement over the country's future into a bloody confrontation that threatens to escalate.

Months of protests succeeded in forcing the ouster in April of strongman Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled Sudan for 30 years as head of a repressive state backed by the military and Islamists. When the generals took power after his fall, the protesters stayed in the streets, saying they wanted an end to military rule as well.

For weeks, the military and protest leaders negotiated over the makeup of a transitional council meant to run the country for three years before elections. Protesters demand that civilians dominate the council, but the generals resisted.

After Monday's crackdown, protest leaders suspended negotiations. The head of the military council, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, then canceled any agreed-upon points from the talks and said the military would form a government to hold elections within seven to nine months.

On Wednesday, however, Burhan abruptly announced that the generals were prepared to resume negotiations with "no restrictions."

"We open our hands to negotiations with all parties ... for the interest of the nation," Burhan said, adding that those responsible for the attack on the sit-in camp would be held accountable.

The reasons for his about-face were not immediately clear. But the offer could cause divisions within the protest movement, where some factions may be open to returning to the table.

The military council's deputy head, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — who also leads the Rapid Support Forces, the force protesters blame for the bulk of killings — said in televised comments that a "fair and independent" investigation had been launched into the violent breakup of the Khartoum sit-in and other clashes.

Dagalo, better known by his nickname Hemedti, promised "fast results" and said anyone who "crossed boundaries" will be punished.

The Rapid Support Forces grew out of the Janjaweed militias used by the government to suppress the Darfur insurgency in the 2000s, a campaign that prompted charges of genocide against its perpetrators. Human rights groups said that under Dagalo in more recent years, RSF militiamen carried out rapes, torture and killings of Darfur civilians.

The Sudanese Professionals Association, which has spearheaded the demonstrations and since Monday has called for the ouster of the military council, said protesters "totally reject" Burhan's offer.

"This call is not serious," association spokesman Mohammed Yousef al-Mustafa told The Associated Press. "Burhan and those under him have killed the Sudanese and are still doing it. Their vehicles patrol the streets, firing at people."

"We will continue in our protests, resistance, strike and total civil disobedience," he said.

But the head of Sudan's leading opposition political party, the Umma Party, seemed to suggest the movement needed to discuss its position. Sadeq al-Mahdi urged all factions in the protest movement to meet urgently to work out "how to bring the transfer of power" to a civilian council.

He did not urge a return to negotiations but criticized some in the movement for "unjustified escalation" — an apparent reference to strikes called by the Sudanese Professionals Association in previous weeks — and said he had expected the military to escalate as well. He said the military council had played a "critical role in the revolution" by ousting al-Bashir and now must admit responsibility for Monday's attack and hold those behind it accountable.

Al-Mahdi headed the last elected government in Sudan, preceding al-Bashir. His Umma Party is one of a number of long-established opposition parties that joined the protest movement, bringing their organized rank-and-file into the streets. Some protesters view them with suspicion, considering them an old guard not ready to bring dramatic change.

Leading activist Madani Abbas Madani said protesters would continue an open-ended civil disobedience campaign until the overthrow of the ruling military council.

"What happened on Monday was a systematic and planned attempt to impose repression on the Sudanese people," he said.

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Associated Press writer Bassam Hatoum reported this story in Khartoum and AP writer Samy Magdy reported from Cairo.

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