KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Security forces opened fire on Sudanese protesters Friday, witnesses said, as thousands marched through the streets of the capital in an opposition push to turn a wave of popular anger over fuel price hikes into an outright uprising against the 24-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir.
At least 50 people have been killed so far this week in the security forces' crackdown on a startling burst of protests, sparked by cuts on fuel and gas subsidies. The marches are turning into the heaviest domestic challenge yet faced by al-Bashir, who had so far been spared the sort of anti-authoritarian popular revolts seen around the Arab world the past two years.
Though he has kept his grip on the regime, al-Bashir has been increasingly beleaguered. The economy has been worsening, especially after South Sudan broke off and became an independent state in 2011, taking Sudan's main oil-producing territory. Armed secessionist groups operate in several parts of the country. And al-Bashir himself, who came to power as head of a military-Islamist regime after a 1989 coup, is wanted by the International Criminal Court over alleged crimes in Sudan's western region of Darfur.
Protesters marched in several parts of Khartoum and in at least one other city, Wad Madani, after weekly Muslim prayers. Security forces opened fire on a march on 60th Street in eastern Khartoum, one witness said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. There was no immediate word on casualties.
In the Khartoum district of Omdurman, a longtime opposition stronghold, one of Sudan's most prominent opposition leaders, Sadiq al-Mahdi, delivered the Friday sermon at a mosque, telling worshippers that al-Bashir has been spending the state's budget on "consolidating power" and failed "to lift the agony off the citizens' shoulders."
"Life became unbearable. Citizens' main concern is survival after the government gave up on its responsibility to provide subsidies," said al-Mahdi, of the National Umma Party. "We call for changing the regime."
After the sermon, a crowd of protesters marched from the mosque through the district, changing "the people want the downfall of the regime," the slogan heard in Arab Spring uprisings from Tunisia and Egypt to Syria and Yemen.
Security forces were deployed nearby in pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns. Omdurman residents blocked their streets with rocks and pipes in an attempt to keep security forces out, though witnesses reported that police opened fire tear gas and live ammunition on the march as it tried to cross the Nile River into central Khartoum.
"People will not be stopped by the killings until this rotten regime leaves," one witness and Umma Party member, Mohammed al-Mahdi, told the Associated Press.
Anti-government protests first erupted this week in the town of Wad Madani south of Sudan's capital, then spread to Khartoum and seven other cities after the government on Sunday cut subsidies on fuel and gas, causing prices to leap. Angry protesters torched police and gas stations and government buildings, while students marched chanting for al-Bashir's ouster.
The subsidy cuts are part of a program worked out with the International Monetary Fund aiming to salvage the economy after the break with the south, seeking to cut state spending while encouraging non-oil sectors. Al-Bashir justified the new measures, saying they would rescue the country from "collapse."
A gallon (3.8 liters) of diesel sprang from eight Sudanese pounds ($1.81) to 14 pounds ($3.18). A gallon of gasoline, once 12 pounds ($2.7), jumped to 21 ($4.7), while a canister of cooking gas that was 14 pounds ($3.2) is now 25 ($5.6).
Faisal Saleh, a political commentator in the daily newspaper Khartoum, said the new protests were significant because of their geographical exten, the variety of protesters and the bloody response by the security forces.
"This only reflects that the government feels endangered by the protests. We have seen secondary school students shot to death for only chanting against the regime, not even throwing a rock," he said.
He said that what remains to be seen is whether the opposition can formulate a united leadership to lead these protests. "Te coming hours are very critical because they are big test whether the revolt will continue to fade away," he said.
Two rights groups, Amnesty International and the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies, accused the government of using a "shoot to kill" policy against this week's protests, saying they had documented 50 deaths in rioting on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"Shooting to kill — including by aiming at protesters' chests and heads — is a blatant violation of the right to life, and Sudan must immediately end this violent repression," said Amnesty's deputy chief for Africa, Lucy Freeman.
Youth activists and doctors at a Khartoum hospital told The Associated Press that at least 100 people died since Monday. Sudanese police, in a statement carried by the official SUNA news agency late Thursday, put the death toll at 29 people, including policemen. A precise toll was almost impossible to obtain, partly due to a media blackout that prevented journalists from obtaining records and a 24-hour Internet outage on Wednesday.
Interior Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud said Friday that 600 people have been arrested for "sobatage" and will stand trial, according to SUNA. He warned on Friday that "the safety of citizens is a red line."
Associated Press writer Geir Moulson contributed to this story from Berlin.