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Crowds back Bashir at Sudan rally ahead of rival protest

Supporters of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir gather in the eastern city of Kassala on January 7, 2019

Khartoum (AFP)

Hundreds of people gathered in Sudan's capital Wednesday in a show of support for President Omar al-Bashir's embattled regime after deadly anti-government protests erupted across the country last month.

The rally by crowds of men and women backing Bashir, who has ruled Sudan since 1989 when he swept to power in an Islamist-backed coup, came as rival protesters prepared to stage their own demonstration in Khartoum.

Hundreds of riot policemen, soldiers and security agents, some carrying machine guns, were deployed around the site of the pro-Bashir rally in the Green Yard, a large open ground in the city, an AFP correspondent reported.

Men, women and children carrying banners supporting Bashir arrived in buses from early in the morning.

The rally was the first held in Khartoum in support of Bashir since protests erupted.

Angry demonstrators have taken to the streets since December after a government decision to triple the price of bread at a time when the country has been hit by an acute shortage of foreign currency and inflation of 70 percent.

Protests that initially broke out in towns and villages before spreading to Khartoum quickly turned into anti-government rallies, with analysts describing them as the biggest threat yet to Bashir's regime.

Authorities say at least 19 people including two security personnel have been killed during the demonstrations, but rights group Amnesty International has put the death toll at 37.

Crowds chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) and "Yes, Yes Bashir we will follow you" welcomed the president at the rally with a group of ministers and top officials.

As soon as Bashir arrived, mobile phone networks and the internet were shut down in and around the rally site.

- Conspirators blamed -

Dressed in a khaki shirt and trousers and waving a stick, a smiling Bashir greeted the cheering crowd as men and women whistled and waved flags.

Bashir, who has ordered the police to use "less force" on demonstrators, has blamed the violence during protests on conspirators without naming them.

"Those who conspired against us and planted traitors amongst us are those who carried out arson attacks and caused damage," the official SUNA news agency quoted Bashir telling soldiers at a military base on Tuesday near the town of Atbara where the first protest broke out on December 19.

In the initial protests several buildings of Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) were torched.

"Some people are saying that the army is taking power," Bashir said, slamming some political groups who previously were with the government but have now called for his resignation.

"I have no problem with that, because the army always guards the security of our homeland," he said without offering further details.

More than 800 protesters have been arrested since the unrest began, officials say, insisting that the situation has now stabilised even as protests rumbled on.

Opposition leaders, activists and journalists have been detained as part of a crackdown to prevent protests spreading.

Britain, Norway, the United States and Canada reiterated their concern over the situation in Sudan in a joint statement issued Tuesday.

"We are appalled by reports of deaths and serious injury to those exercising their legitimate right to protest, as well as reports of the use of live ammunition against protesters," the statement said.

"We urge the government of Sudan to ensure that a fully transparent and independent investigation into the deaths of protesters takes place as soon as possible, and that those responsible are held to account."

It also called on Khartoum to release all those detained without charge, warning that the government's action in the issue "will have an impact" on engagements with the governments of the four countries.

Sudan has faced a mounting economic crisis in the past year, with food and fuel shortages regularly reported across several cities, including Khartoum.

Later on Wednesday, organisers of anti-government protests have called for a new demonstration in Khartoum.

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