AU envoy mediates Sudan crisis as protesters slam military

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Special envoy of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Ambassador Mahmoud Dreir speaks to the press at the Ethiopian embassy, Khartoum, Sudan Tuesday, June 11, 2019 on the agreement to end the civil disobedience of the country between the forces of freedom and change and the military council. (AP Photo)

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) An African Union envoy said Thursday that mediation efforts to ease Sudan's crisis are making "significant progress," while leaders of the protest movement accused the ruling military of pursuing a crackdown on protesters.

Ethiopia and the U.S. have recently stepped up diplomatic efforts to ease Sudan's growing tensions, following the deadly dispersal last week by security forces of pro-democracy demonstrators' main protest sit-in in Khartoum. Over 100 people were killed in the capital and across Sudan in a sweeping crackdown, according to protest organizers.

The dispersal was an alarming turn in the standoff between the protesters and the military, which removed President Omar al-Bashir from power in April after a months-long popular uprising against his 30-year rule.

In response to the sit-in dispersal, the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change, a coalition of political groups representing the protesters, staged a three-day general strike and a campaign of civil disobedience earlier this week.

The AU envoy to Sudan, Mohamed El Hacen Lebatt, declined to elaborate on where the mediation talks were headed, saying during a news conference in Khartoum that it was up to the two sides to disclose the outcome of the talks.

He also said that the AU is demanding "an accurate, transparent and credible" investigation into last week's violent sit-in dispersal.

Following the military crackdown on protesters, the AU's Peace and Security Council suspended Sudan's participation in all AU activities until a civilian-led transitional authority is formed. Lebatt reiterated that other punitive measures could be taken if the situation deteriorates further in Sudan, but the suspension could be lifted if the situation improves.

Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday the military council and leaders of the protest movement had agreed to resume their talks soon, "in good-faith to iron-out the remaining outstanding points." Those points include setting up a government council to run Sudan during a transition period. The ministry said both sides also agreed to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric and de-escalate tensions, and that the military council would undertake confidence-building measures including the release of political prisoners.

However, Tarek Abdel Meguid, an FDFC leader, said the direct talks with the military had yet to resume. He said the AU mediators hadn't delivered any guarantees that the generals had accepted protesters' preconditions for talks.

Earlier, the FDFC said it would not resume direct negotiations with the ruling military council until it acknowledges last week's "massacre," allows the formation of an international commission to investigate the killings of protesters, restores internet services, adheres to previous deals struck before the breakdown in talks and sends paramilitary troops back to their barracks.

"Nothing changed so far and hence there will be no direct talks," Abdel Meguid told The Associated Press.

The Sudanese Professionals Association, which led the protests that drove al-Bashir from power, issued a strongly worded statement Thursday accusing the security forces of arresting, intimidating and getting workers laid off from their jobs after participating in this week's general strike.

The association claimed the military had threatened to evacuate government-owned residential apartment buildings to force strikers to go to work. Owners of private businesses faced similar threats, it added.

"We will work with our people on exposing the perpetrators of these crimes, which are no less serious than crimes of dispersing sit-ins and confronting rallies with bullets and tear gas," the SPA said.

Amid international diplomatic efforts to contain the situation, the FDCF halted the general strike on Wednesday. However, Abdel Meguid denied any link between the decision to call off the strike and the mediation talks.

"You can never have an open-ended strike," said Abdel Meguid. "We suspended the strike but we will resume it and resume our rallies."

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ElHennawy reported from Cairo.

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This story has been corrected to show that the AU envoy's name is spelled Mohamed El Hacen Lebatt, not Labbat.

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