KHARTOUM: Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) meets the chief of Sudan’s ruling military council General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan on Friday. – AFP

KHARTOUM: Sudanese security forces have arrested two prominent rebels and an opposition leader, their aides said yesterday, just days after a bloody crackdown crushed hopes for a swift democratic transition. The three men were arrested after meeting Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Khartoum Friday as he sought to revive talks between Sudan’s ruling generals and protest leaders on the country’s transition. That came days after men in military fatigues smashed up a weeks-long protest sit-in on Monday, leaving dozens of demonstrators dead.

Witnesses say the assault was led by the feared Rapid Support Forces, who have their origins in the notorious Janjaweed militia, accused of abuses in the Darfur conflict between 2003 and 2004. Yesterday, RSF members and soldiers cleared major Khartoum streets of roadblocks put up by protesters. Demonstrators had used tyres, tree trunks and rocks to erect the makeshift barricades, which the generals had warned would not be tolerated.

Sudan’s military council seized power in April after ousting longtime dictator Omar Al-Bashir on the back of months-long protests against his three-decade rule. Since then, it has resisted calls from protesters and Western nations to transfer power to a civilian administration. Several rounds of talks with the demonstrators finally broke down in mid-May. In a bid to revive the negotiations, the Ethiopian premier flew to Khartoum on Friday and held separate meetings with the two sides.

“The army, the people and political forces have to act with courage and responsibility by taking quick steps towards a democratic and consensual transitional period,” Abiy said in a statement after the meetings. “The army has to protect the security of the country and its people and political forces have to think about the future of the country.”

But three members of an opposition delegation that met the Ethiopian premier were later arrested, their aides said yesterday. Opposition politician Mohamed Esmat was detained Friday, while Ismail Jalab, a leader of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), was taken from his home overnight. “A group of armed men came in vehicles at 3:00 am (1:00 GMT) and took away Ismail Jalab… without giving any reason,” one of his aides, Rashid Anwar, told AFP. He said SPLM-N spokesman Mubarak Ardol was also detained.

Esmat and Jalab are both leading members of the Alliance for Freedom and Change, an umbrella of opposition parties and some rebel groups. The Alliance was a key organizer of mass protests since December that led to Bashir’s ouster. The arrests threaten to further complicate efforts to reconcile the protest movement and the generals. Following Monday’s brutal crackdown, chances of a quick democratic transition appear remote as protest leaders now insist that talks with the generals can resume only under certain conditions.

“The Transitional Military Council has to admit the crime it committed,” Omar Al-Digeir, a prominent protest leader told reporters on Friday after meeting Abiy. He called for all military forces to be removed from streets across the country and demanded an international probe into “the massacre at the sit-in”. Digeir said the military council should also restore access to the Internet and allow public and media freedoms.

Britain’s ambassador to Khartoum Irfan Siddiq tweeted that “in diplomacy, dialogue is everything and pre-conditions for dialogue are generally not a good idea”. But, he continued, “after what happened on 3 June, these… conditions for returning to talks seem eminently reasonable.” Since the crackdown, Khartoum residents have mostly been sheltering indoors and the streets have been deserted. RSF chief and deputy head of the military council, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, has warned he will not tolerate “any chaos”.

Some barricades remained in place, witnesses said yesterday, but the protest site at military headquarters was out of bounds. Troops and RSF paramilitaries surrounded it from all sides to keep demonstrators at bay. The protest slogans that once rang across Khartoum – “freedom, peace, justice” and “civilian rule, civilian rule” – were nowhere to be heard. – AFP