CAIRO (AP) — Sudanese forces used gunfire and tear gas to break up an anti-government protest Tuesday in the southern Darfur city of Nyala, killing at least seven protesters, most of them students, a human rights lawyer said.
They were the first reported deaths in demonstrations against recent austerity measures.
The measures, in place since June, have sparked a wave of protests in the capital, Khartoum, and other cities. The protests appear partially inspired by the Arab uprisings in neighboring Egypt and Libya. The protests were largely limited to major cities and around university campuses but have increasingly drawn in angry citizens.
The government, which says the austerity measures are necessary to meet dwindling resources and oil revenues, responded with a heavy crackdown and a campaign of arrests and intimidation of activists, largely subduing the protest movement.
In Nyala, public transportation drivers started a strike on Monday because of rising fuel prices. On Tuesday, the drivers on strike were joined by students, making up the largest protest in the provincial capital of southern Darfur.
The lawyer said the protests turned violent, and protesters and security forces clashed. The security forces used tear gas to disperse the crowds, and protesters pelted the security forces with rocks, he said, speaking from Nyala on condition of anonymity because he said he feared for his life.
Chris Cycmanick, spokesman for the joint United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, said the protesters burned tires and stoned moving vehicles. He said his force could not verify the number of casualties.
The lawyer said the protesters also attacked the office of the ruling party of President Omar al-Bashir and torched a local government office. He said the police responded to the angry protesters with live ammunition, killing at least seven protesters.
The lawyer, who went to the morgue to identify the bodies, said five of those killed were students, including a high school girl. He said 50 people were injured, some seriously, mostly from gunfire.
"The security used excessive force to stop the protest," he said speaking by telephone from Nyala. "It was a very difficult day."
Activists posted pictures of the protests on social media sites that showed pictures of large plumes of smoke on the Nyala skyline and fallen protesters. The pictures could not be independently verified.
The western region of Darfur has been torn by conflict since 2003, when rebels took up arms against the central government, accusing it of discrimination and neglect. Violence has tapered off, but clashes between armed rebels and government forces erupt often.
The governor of South Darfur, Hamad Ismail Hamad, accused armed rebels of "manipulating" popular discontent over the austerity measures "to cause chaos and sedition."
Hamad was speaking to the official state news agency. The lawyer dismissed the government claims, saying armed rebels don't operate in Darfur cities controlled by government forces, but rather in remote villages.