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Call for Release of Political Opposition Members in Sudan

Sudan's main opposition party Thursday appealed for the release of its supporters arrested Wednesday, as they attempted to hold a celebration.

A spokeswoman for the opposition Umma Party, Mariam al-Mahdi, tells VOA she and her colleagues have drafted a memo to officials in the Sudanese government, Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the United Nations, diplomatic corps, and others informing them of Wednesday's arrests and appealing for the release of supporters still in jail.

Ms. al-Mahdi says Sudanese security forces converged on the Umma Party's headquarters in Omdurman near the Sudanese capital Wednesday afternoon as supporters were trying to celebrate the anniversary of an uprising that ended the military rule of Gaafar Nimeiri almost two decades ago.

She says the Sudanese forces fired on the crowd with bullets and tear gas, injuring eight and arresting scores of students and Umma Party officials alike. The officials were released, says Ms. al-Mahdi, but 24 youths are still in detention.

Ms. al-Mahdi says Wednesday's crackdown is part of a larger pattern of harassment by the government.

"We don't think it is because of the rally," she said. "It is a political decision, even not from the security forces, because they have been putting us under harassment for the last week in a concentrated way."

Government officials could not be reached for comment.

The crackdown is the latest controversy facing the Sudanese government, which is under intense international pressure to end the two-year-old conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

Tuesday, the United Nations handed over to the International Criminal Court a list of people accused of committing crimes against humanity in Darfur, an action the Sudanese government condemned. It is believed that many on the list are senior government officials.

An analyst at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, Richard Cornwell, says Wednesday's crackdown could be related to the situation in Darfur or the need for the government to assert its power.

"The Umma has traditionally enjoyed support from the Darfurian region. Whether that's got anything to do with it, whether this is simply flexing muscles to show who's still boss, who knows?"

Mr. Cornwell says there have been reports that the Sudanese government thinks extremist groups involved in Darfur or opposed to the recently signed north-south peace deal may try to overthrow the government. But, he says, it is hard to gauge the likelihood of that happening.

The government has been cracking down on the opposition in recent times. Last year, it banned the Popular Congress party and put its leader Hasan al-Turabi in detention. The Umma Party itself is unregistered.