Protesters, Sudan police clash over spending cuts

AFP , Monday 18 Jun 2012

Sudanese students hurl stones at riot police amid protests against the regime's decision to raise taxation and remove fuel subsidies 'step by step' aimed at encountering the country's severe economic crunch

Photo: Reuters

Anti-regime protesters clashed with police in Sudan's capital on Monday, witnesses said, as President Omar al-Bashir announced a raft of austerity measures aimed at propping up the country's ailing finances.

Speaking in parliament, Bashir said the government had decided to raise taxation and remove fuel subsidies "step by step," as well as axing hundreds of positions in the federal and state governments and cutting officials' salaries.

As he was speaking, an AFP reporter saw student protesters outside the University of Khartoum hurling stones at riot police, who fired tear gas to disperse demonstrations scattered around the campus.

It was the third time in as many days that protests have been held outside the university next to the Blue Nile river in the centre of the capital, with students chanting anti-regime slogans and denouncing a sharp rise in food prices.

Across the river, in Khartoum north, eyewitnesses said a crowd gathered in the street also shouted anti-regime slogans including: "We will not be ruled by a dictator," and "Khartoum, rise up! Rise up!" as well as burning tyres.

Riot police then arrived and beat some protesters with batons.

Another demonstration took place at Ahlia University, in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman, where hundreds of students gathered, shouting: "The people want to change the regime," witnesses told AFP.

Again, riot police appeared and were seen beating the protesters.

Sudan's economy is reeling, hit by soaring inflation and a rapidly depreciating currency, with Khartoum scrambling to compensate for the heavy loss of oil revenues after the secession of the South last July.

The government has for weeks been mulling the decision to scrap fuel subsidies which it can no longer afford.

Bashir in his speech acknowledged that the move would affect Sudanese citizens, "especially the poor," but he said the cost-cutting measures were necessary.

"We have a gap between our income and our expenses, and we are trying to bridge this gap," he said.

"We have decided to increase taxation and to cut 100 positions in the federal government and 200 positions in the state governments. And we are going to remove fuel subsidies step by step," he added.

Finance Minister Ali Mahmud al-Rasul will give the details of the latest austerity measures when he announces a new budget in parliament on Wednesday, Bashir said.

Pro-democracy group Sudan Change Now accused the government of "heinous crimes," saying riot police and plain-clothes security agents had used violence against protesters "that has not been witnessed in many years in its excess and brutality."

"The deteriorating economic situation is only one of the many examples of the mismanagement and corruption of the NCP as it approaches its 23rd anniversary of ruling the country," it said, referring to the ruling National Congress Party.

The police, in turn, accused the protesters of seeking to undermine security, saying in a statement that they had arrested an unspecified number of students "who were trying to create disturbance and attack civilian property."

State media said earlier that seven protesters were arrested on Sunday on charges of "instigating riots."

Sudan witnessed sporadic demonstrations in early 2011, inspired by Arab Spring uprisings then sweeping the region, but they failed to gather momentum, partly because of the government's zero tolerance policy towards dissent.

Analysts and some within the NCP itself have already warned of the social consequences of lifting fuel subsidies, given already high prices and the fact that Sudan's burgeoning poor will be the most affected.

Rasul, the finance minister, admitted during a speech in parliament last week that it was the policy of what he called a "bankrupt state."

Inflation officially hit 30.4 per cent in May, compared with 28.6 per cent in April, the central statistics bureau said earlier this month, although some economists say the real figure could be more than 40 per cent.

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