Sudan’s protest leaders and ruling generals resumed talks Wednesday over forming a new governing body, the first such negotiations since a deadly crackdown on demonstrators last month.
The dialogue came after African Union and Ethiopian mediators called on the two sides Tuesday to resume long stalled negotiations on a transition to civilian rule — the main demand of demonstrators who have rallied against the generals for weeks.
Negotiations between the two sides collapsed in May over the make-up of the governing body and who should lead it — a civilian or a soldier.
Tensions further soared after a brutal crackdown on a longstanding protest camp in Khartoum killed dozens of demonstrators exactly a month ago.
On Wednesday the talks resumed in Khartoum, between three generals from the ruling military council and five protest leaders, an AFP correspondent reported from the Corinthia Hotel on the bank of the Nile river.
General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — deputy chief of the army council and chief of the feared Rapid Support Forces — was among the three military negotiators.
Ethiopia and the AU have proposed a blueprint for a civilian-majority body, in a bid to resolve the crisis that has rocked Sudan for months.
The military deposed longtime leader Omar al-Bashir in April, amid widespread protests against his ironfisted rule.
– ’72 hours’ –
Earlier on Wednesday the umbrella protest movement said it was ready for the talks.
“The Alliance for Freedom and Change met and decided to accept the invitation for direct negotiations” with the generals, prominent protest leader Madani Abbas Madani told reporters.
He added that one of the conditions for the talks was to reach a decision “within 72 hours”.
The ruling military council had earlier not indicated whether it had agreed to the talks.
But state television said that General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who heads the military council, ordered the immediate release from jail of 235 members of a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army which has fought government forces in war-torn Darfur and is part of the protest movement.
Protest leaders have exerted pressure on the generals since a June 3 raid on a mass sit-in outside army headquarters.
The raid was carried out by men in military fatigues.
The ruling military council insists it did not order the violent dispersal of the sit-in.
At least 136 people have been killed across the country since the raid, including more than 100 on June 3, according to doctors close to the umbrella protest movement, the Alliance for Freedom and Change.
The health ministry says 78 people have been killed nationwide over the same period.
– Test of mobilisation –
On Sunday, in what was the first mass protest against the generals since the raid, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets.
The mass protest had been seen as a test for the protest leaders’ ability to mobilise crowds after the generals imposed a widespread internet blackout and deployed security forces in the capital’s key squares and districts, its twin city Omdurman and other towns and villages.
On Monday protest leaders upped the pressure on the generals by calling for a similar mass protest on July 13, to be followed by a nationwide civil disobedience campaign a day later.
The civil disobedience campaign, if observed, would be the second such agitation since the June 3 raid.
The first, held between June 9 and 11, paralysed the country, hitting an already dilapidated economy hard.
Protest leaders have been supported by Western nations in their call for civilian rule, while the generals appear to have the backing of Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, experts say.
“We commend the Sudanese people’s commitment to peaceful protest and support their call for a civilian-led transitional government,” US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Wednesday, calling recent violence against demonstrators “reprehensible.”
“It is time for the Transitional Military Council to come to an agreement with the Forces for Freedom and Change that is broadly supported by the Sudanese people.”