CAIRO -- Police on Friday used tear gas to disperse anti-government demonstrations across Sudan's capital, where two weeks of street protests there and elsewhere in the country are keeping pressure on autocratic President Omar al-Bashir to step down after nearly 30 years in power.
The protests took place in at least eight different districts of Khartoum and its twin cities of Omdurman and Bahary, with thousands taking to the streets after the noon prayers chanting "freedom, peace, justice." The protesters also carried banners bearing the word "erhal," Arabic for "leave!" and chanted "Oh, you dancer, you made the people hungry," a reference to al-Bashir's trademark dance to local music after speaking at rallies.
In Omdurman, after the noon prayers, protesters rallied around opposition leader Sadeq al-Mahdi, Sudan's last freely elected government whose three years in power proved ineffective.
There were also protests in the railway city of Atbara, a traditional bastion of dissent and one of several cities where anti-government demonstrations began Dec. 19, initially over rising prices and shortages but which quickly shifted to calls for al-Bashir to step down.
Kassala and the Red Sea city of Port Sudan, both in eastern Sudan, and al-Gazeera region south of Khartoum also witnessed protests Friday.
At least 40 people are reported to have been killed in the protests so far. The government has acknowledged the death of 19 people and al-Bashir this week ordered an investigation into the use of lethal force against protesters. His decision to probe the deaths came after several Western nations, including the United States, have expressed their alarm at the use of live ammunition by security forces and demanded an investigation.
Friday's protests were called by the country's largest opposition blocs as part of a series, with the next ones slated for Sunday and Wednesday.
Al-Bashir, an Islamist, has been in power since 1989 when he led a military coup that toppled al-Mahdi's elected government. He was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2010 for genocide and crimes against humanity in the western Darfur region. The mainly animist and Christian south seceded a year later under a peace deal that ended a long civil war.
With the south seceding, Sudan lost three quarters of its oil wealth, plunging the economy into a protracted crisis that continues to this day. In recent weeks, a devaluation of the local currency sent prices soaring. An attempt to lift subsidies on bread, a main fare for most Sudanese, proved to be the last stroke.
Al-Bashir has acknowledged the country's economic woes, but used a mix of religion and promises of better days to ride out the current crisis. On Thursday, he pledged an increase in wages, continued state subsidies on basic food items, better services for pensioners and an overhaul of medical care. He did not elaborate.
Also this week, he said Sudan's problems were largely caused by international sanctions — Sudan is on the U.S. list of countries sponsoring terrorism — and unnamed parties that sought to undermine Sudan's Islamic "experiment."