KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Security agents arrested and beat dozens of opposition supporters Wednesday minutes after they started a rally against the 21-year rule of Sudan's president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, witnesses said.
The protest in downtown Khartoum was the latest in a series of attempts by youth groups and opposition parties to follow the lead of anti-government uprisings across the Arab world. But the movement has so far failed to attract wide support.
Police have cracked down on protests with increasing speed and ferocity since uprisings in neighboring Egypt and Libya.
The regional unrest has come at a sensitive time for the Khartoum government as it struggles with an economic crisis, prepares for the secession of its oil-producing south and continues to fight rebels in its western Darfur territory.
Small groups of protesters gathered in Khartoum's Abu Janzeer square in the early afternoon, as more than 500 police and security officers patrolled the surrounding streets, a Reuters witness said.
As soon as they started shouting slogans, the security forces moved in and arrested most of the protesters, including the veteran leader of Sudan's Communists, Mohamed Ibrahim Nugud.
Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) had earlier warned the rally would be illegal. State media quoted senior party member Nazar Mahjoub accusing protest organizers of trying to spread chaos.
"We are calling for Bashir to step down," said Farouk Abu Issa, chairman of the National Consensus Forces, a loose coalition of opposition parties that organized the protest.
"The message is that the Sudanese people will continue fighting, in the same way as the Egyptian and Tunisian people, to restore democracy," he told Reuters before the protest.
Other opposition figures stopped short of calling for regime change and acknowledged they had so far failed to rally huge popular support behind their cause.
"We need to mobilize the people more seriously ... At the moment we spend too much time talking to the media and holding closed speeches and press conferences," said Mariam al-Mahdi from the opposition Umma party before the rally.
"There is total chaos, total failure in Sudan ... We are poor. We don't have a voice. Life is very hard for non-NCP people. You don't get access to anything," added Mahdi, daughter of former Sudanese prime minister Sadeq al-Mahdi.
Mahdi and Issa said police arrested three organizers of the rally from the opposition Communist and Ba'ath parties in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Sudan's oil-producing south is due to declare independence on July 9 after just short of 99 percent of southern voters chose to secede in a January referendum.
(Writing by Andrew Heavens; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)