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US warns Sudan — and perhaps the Saudis — about cracking down on protesters

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Dreadful events are happening in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and more likely will come. Paramilitary troops loyal to Sudan’s ruling generals have imposed a reign of terror. Opposition civilians, whose protests forced the end of the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir in April, have been beaten, and women raped. The government acknowledges more than 40 deaths. The real total is likely to be multiples of this.

Today’s London Times reports that women, including medical staff, were singled out for abuse, quoting a protest leader as saying: “The [militia] knows that if they break the women, they break the revolution. In this culture there is no greater punishment for women than sexual crimes.”  The newspaper reported that “an image of a fighter’s ‘war trophy’ — underwear thought to have been taken from rape victims and dangled from a rifle — was circulated widely on social media.”

Khartoum is a long way from Washington and, for many Americans perhaps, Sudan is synonymous with dictatorship and famine. But this time may be different. The United States appears to be publicly expressing concern about Saudi Arabia’s role, most likely overseen by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MbS.

The deputy head of the Sudanese military council, Gen. Mohammad Hamadan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, met with MbS in Jeddah last month. Dagalo was a warlord during the atrocities in Darfur in 2003, events that resulted in President Bashir’s indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. This week, Dagalo said the protestors had been infiltrated by rogue elements and drug dealers.

On Tuesday,  the State Department said: “Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale spoke today with Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman” — MbS’s younger brother, aka KbS — “about the brutal crackdown against peaceful protestors by Sudan’s Transitional Military Council on June 3. Under Secretary Hale noted the importance of a transition from the Transitional Military Council to a civilian-led government in accordance with the will of the Sudanese people.”

In the circumstances, it is hard not to see the statement as being very public pressure on Riyadh to change its support for the Sudanese generals. What event or intelligence prompted Hale’s conversation with KbS is unknown, but the tone of the statement suggests Riyadh may have actively encouraged the crackdown. The kingdom, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was visited by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese military council, last week. It is assumed he sought — and received — support and backing for his action, which started on Monday when his forces attacked a protest camp in Khartoum.

As an evident consequence of U.S. pressure, the Saudi Press Agency issued a statement on Wednesday, saying the kingdom “has followed with great concern the developments in the brotherly Republic of Sudan, which resulted in a number of deaths and injuries.” Another statement from the embassy quoted the Saudi Minister of State for African Affairs as saying: “Our priorities are Sudan’s security and stability. We are confident that the people of Sudan will not allow their country to descend into chaos and civil war, which only serves the forces of terrorism and extremism.”

In the context, “terrorism and extremism” likely are code words for Turkey and Qatar, which Riyadh judges are competing for influence in Khartoum. Last week the Sudanese military council shut the Khartoum office of Al-Jazeera, the Qatari broadcaster, and ordered Sudan’s ambassador in Qatar to return home for consultations.

The politics of the crisis are in considerable flux. When the crackdown started, the military said they were abrogating commitments on a transition to civilian rule. Since then, they have offered unconditional talks with opposition leaders. But this has been rejected by the alliance of protest and opposition groups.

Although the United States and Europe are publicly concerned, China, backed by Russia, blocked moves at the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to condemn the killing of civilians and call for an immediate end to the violence. The African Union said it has suspended Sudan.

The person to watch is Dagalo. And, based on the events of this week, he can be ruthless. That doesn’t sound good for the people of Sudan.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags Mohammad bin Salman Omar al-Bashir Saudi Arabia Sudan Sudanese protests
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