KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Sudanese security forces in pickup trucks opened fire on Saturday on hundreds of mourners marching after the funeral of a protester killed a day earlier, the latest violence in a week of demonstrations calling for the ouster of longtime President Omar al-Bashir.
The man killed was a pharmacist from a prominent family, suggesting the heavy security crackdown could deepen discontent, spread unrest and upset the complex network of power centers al-Bashir relies upon to stay in power. In a rare scene to emerge online, video clips circulated by activists showed mourners kicking out al-Bashir's aide Nafie Ali Nafie from the slain protester's house where he went to pay condolences to the family.
Three female protesters interviewed separately said dozens of pickup trucks and security forces surrounded them in a main street in the capital Khartoum before firing tear gas and live ammunition. It was not possible to independently verify their account, but Sudanese activists and international rights groups say government security forces have routinely used live fire against protesters, often aimed at the head and torso. One of the three women was waiting at a hospital where she said two relatives were being treated for gunshot wounds.
The violent crackdown that aims to quash Sudan's most extensive street demonstrations in two decades could now actually be propelling them, activists said.
"The excessive use of force means that the regime is becoming bare of any political cover and it is declaring a war against its own people," said Khaled Omar, a member of the Change Now youth movement, one of the groups calling for protests. "This will backfire internally, inside the regime itself and cause cracks within and lead to its collapse," he said, voicing a forecast held widely among activists but one that is difficult to predict.
Yet in what could be first sign of disenchantment within the ruling regime, 31 politicians, including members of al-Bashir's ruling party and military officials signed a petition calling on the president to carry out reforms because his rule is "at stake."
Among them are a leading member of the ruling National Congress party, Hassan Ali Rizk, and Ghazi Salah Eddin, a former information minister and a presidential adviser. The petition called for reversing austerity measures, creating a mechanism for national consensus and investigating the killings of protesters. Among the signatories are members of the Islamic Movement, a pillar of al-Bashir's regime, which activists say is looking out for its own survival.
The protests, which erupted Sunday night, were initially triggered by the lifting of fuel and wheat subsidies. But over the past days demands have escalated to call for the resignation of al-Bashir, who has ruled for 24 years.
"The cars came from the back and the front while we were marching in the street," another female protester said. "The tear gas was very strong. The people fled trying to escape, taking shelter inside homes," she added.
Earlier in the day, women, crying and hugging, blocked a side-street to prevent police from deploying to the funeral of 26-year-old pharmacist Salah al-Sanhouri. His family says he was shot outside his pharmacy as a march went by Friday, on the same street where the protest came under attack again on Saturday.
The death toll from a week of protests is sharply contested. Amnesty International and the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies have accused the government of using a "shoot to kill" policy against protesters, saying they had documented 50 deaths in rioting on Tuesday and Wednesday alone.
Youth activists and doctors at a Khartoum hospital told The Associated Press that at least 100 people have been killed since Monday. Sudanese police have reported at least 30 deaths nationwide, including policemen. Official statements have often blamed unknown gunmen for attacking protesters.
"Repression is not the answer to Sudan's political and economic problems," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch in a statement Saturday. "Sudan's authorities need to rein in the security forces and make it clear that using excessive force is not allowed," he added.
Activists have begun to compile pictures, names and personal details of each protester killed.
The government appears to be trying to impose a media blackout. Gulf-based satellite broadcasters Sky News Arabia and Al-Arabiya said their Khartoum offices were ordered shut by the government. Sudanese news outlets online have reported photographers and cameraman were barred from covering the protests, while editors have said they were ordered to describe protesters as "saboteurs." Two editors, who like the female protesters spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals, said a total of three newspapers had stopped printing voluntarily and three others had seen issues confiscated, prompting a group of journalists to call for a general strike.
The unrest began early last week in the town of Wad Madani south of Khartoum when al-Bashir announced the subsidy cuts. It quickly spread to at least nine districts in Khartoum and seven cities across the country.
Protesters say austerity measures hit the poor particularly hard but leave intact a corrupt system where senior officials grow wealthy. "This is a government of thieves who looted the country and starved us," the slain pharmacist's uncle said. He refused to give his name for fear of reprisals.
The deaths have the potential to spread discontent among Sudan's big families. The Sanhouris are prominent in the capital, and one mourner identified himself as a senior official in the intelligence services. A chief editor of a leading pro-government paper, top security officials and famous actors belong to the same family, and an elegant mosque is named after a family member. The father, Moudthir al-Sanhouri is known to be close to presidential aide Nafie, who was driven away by mourners at al-Sanhouri house before paying condolences, according to video clips posted by activists on social networking sites.
"I hope this means that we will see curve of violence going down as the government starts to realize that it is hurting itself badly," says activist Sara Kamal. "It is not only about the family connections to the regime, but the fact that he (slain protester) was a pharmacist which doesn't match the government's allegations that protests are led by saboteurs."
Although he maintains a strong grip on power, 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.
AP Photographer Khalil Hamra contributed to this report from Khartoum.