KHARTOUM, Sudan – Security forces fired at Sudanese protesters with bullets and tear gas Friday as thousands took to the streets despite a fierce crackdown that rights groups say has killed dozens of people this week. The regime of President Omar al-Bashir is trying to stifle public anger over fuel price hikes from turning into an Arab Spring-style uprising against his 24-year rule.
The marches in one of the world's poorest countries – where nearly 50 percent of population lives below the poverty line – have turned into the heaviest domestic challenge yet faced by al-Bashir, who has so far been spared the sort of anti-authoritarian popular revolts seen around the Arab world in the past two years.
Though he maintains a strong 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.
The unrest began Sunday in the town of Wad Madani when the government cut subsidies on fuel and gas, causing prices to leap – a decision activist Sara Kamal called "the straw that broke the camel's back."
Protests quickly spread to the capital, Khartoum, and several other cities as opponents of al-Bashir's authoritarian rule worked to harness the anger over the economic woes into a wider movement.
Angry protesters torched police and dozens of gas stations and government buildings, and students marched chanting for al-Bashir's ouster.
Al-Bashir so far has shown remarkable staying power, backed by a vast security machine and a network of interests built on Islamist ideology, economic ties and tribal politics that have enabled him to quash previous efforts at rallying mass opposition.
Activists acknowledge they have no unified leadership or support from political parties but express hope the spontaneous nature of the current round of protests means they're gaining momentum.
"Yes people got out on the streets because of price hikes, but every family has been affected by the past 24 years, with a member killed in wars because of this government," local blogger and journalist Reem Shawkat said. "It's an accumulation of so much anger."
Protesters poured out of mosques and marched in several parts of Khartoum and in Wad Madani after weekly Muslim prayers. Security forces opened fire on marches on two streets in the capital, witnesses said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. At least one protester was shot to death, a doctor said, also declining to be identified because of the tense security situation.
One of Sudan's most prominent opposition leaders, Sadiq al-Mahdi of the National Umma Party, told worshippers at a mosque in the district of Omdurman that al-Bashir has been spending the state's budget on "consolidating power" and failed "to lift the agony off the citizens' shoulders."
After the sermon, protesters marched through the district, a longtime opposition stronghold, chanting "the people want the downfall of the regime," the slogan heard in Arab Spring uprisings that began in late 2010 and have led to the ouster of the leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Security forces were deployed nearby in pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns, while residents barricaded their streets with rocks and t. Still, police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition as protesters tried to cross the Nile River into central Khartoum, witnesses said.
Lawyer and member of the opposition Umma Party, Nafeesa Hagar, said she was injured in the back by rubber bullets during the march. "There is no way people will retreat. We entered a new phase where the street is facing the regime that left us no option but confrontation," she said.
Interior Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud said Friday that 600 people have been arrested this week for "sabotage" and will stand trial, according to SUNA. He warned that "the safety of citizens is a red line." The state-run al-Sahafa daily proclaimed in a front-page headline that the government will "will paralyze the hands of vandals."
A number of newspapers were barred from publishing. The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya satellite television station said Friday its Khartoum office was ordered shut by the government. Sudanese news outlets online have reported that photographers and cameraman have been barred from covering the protests.
The Internet was for almost 24 hours cut in Sudan this week and activists said Facebook was blocked Friday. Youth groups were using Facebook to post video of the protests recorded by residents on their cellphones.
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.
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, including policemen. A precise toll was almost impossible to obtain.
The subsidy cuts come amid International Monetary Fund pressure on Sudan to curb spending and repay debts. Similar IMF-backed austerity measures announced last year also sparked protests that were quickly put down. 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 extent, the variety of protesters and the bloody response by the security forces.
What remains to be seen is whether the opposition can formulate a united leadership. "The coming hours are very critical because they are a big test on whether the revolt will continue or fade away," he said.
Associated Press writers Geir Moulson and Aya Batrawy contributed to this story from Berlin and Cairo.