CAIRO - Protests against price rises and the autocratic three-decade regime of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir spread Saturday in Sudan, amid reports of fresh casualties.
The government closed schools and universities in the capital, Khartoum, to prevent students from joining the widening protests, and the country's spy chief has shut down internet service and social media sites.
Protesters took to the streets of Khartoum and at least a half-dozen other cities, and there were reports of clashes with security forces firing tear gas in a number of them. Reports of arrests circulated on Twitter, but because of the internet outages it was not immediately clear how many people had been detained.
The Reuters news agency said 14 leaders of opposition groups were arrested, including octogenarian politician Farouq Abu Issa, who leads one of two main opposition groups, following a gathering of opponents of al-Bashir in the capital.
Former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, who was ousted by Bashir in 1989, told a press conference after the meeting that a "national unity government" should be formed. Al-Mahdi, who recently returned from exile to resume political activity, said the popular rejection of the regime had spread to 28 cities, meaning the Sudanese people were expressing their opposition to a dictatorial regime.
This peaceful movement, he said, is allowed by the Sudanese constitution and international agreements to which Sudan is a signatory, and it is justified by the collapse of public services and the economic crisis.
Hundreds of protesters in Khartoum chanted slogans Friday against the al- Bashir government, and they included the popular Arab Spring slogan, "The people want to topple the regime." It was the fourth day of protests over rising prices and political oppression.
Sudan's spy chief, Salah Gosh, reportedly met with journalists and other well-known figures Friday to demand they conform to a national loyalty pact. A number of newspapers reportedly decided not to publish Saturday because of the restrictions. Gosh also was reported on social media to have claimed that the Israeli Mossad was involved in sabotage and violence during the four days of protests.
Various social media outlets showed amateur video of security forces firing tear gas at protesters near Khartoum and in its twin city of Omdurman. Other videos showed what appeared to be a government security vehicle ramming into protesters overnight. It was not clear whether anyone was killed or injured.
Reuters reported that demonstrating students set fire to the headquarters of the country's ruling party Saturday in al-Rahad, 370 kilometers northeast of the capital. Amateur video on Twitter also showed a large crowd of mostly young men protesting against the regime in Barbar, in the north of the country.
Faisal Hassan Ibrahim, deputy head of the ruling party, asserted that the protests appeared to be "coordinated and organized," and he insisted the security forces were "guarding strategic locations" across the country.
Adam, a 30-year-old computer programmer from Khartoum, told VOA he didn't think people were protesting because of calls by any political party or opposition group. Rather, he said, the protests were spurred by the country's economy.
"The government stopped all the banks," he said. "If people want to buy something, there is no money, there is no fuel, and there is no transportation, [so] the people feel that life has stopped. So they decided to get out and drive out the government."
Al-Mahdi said Saturday that 22 people had been killed in the four days of protests against the government. The BBC Arabic services reported that the toll could be as high as 25. VOA could not independently confirm the casualty figures.
Al-Bashir, who is wanted on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for gross human rights violations in Darfur, has ruled Sudan with an iron fist for nearly 30 years. Lawmakers recently amended the constitution to allow him to run for another term in 2020.