Sudan’s military coup leaders, struggling to gain control of a country where massive street protests are continuing, shuffled their top leadership in a surprise announcement on Friday night, barely a day after seizing power from deposed president Omar al-Bashir.
The announcement sparked celebrations and wild cheering in the streets of Khartoum, as exuberant protesters saw it as a sign of their growing influence over an unpopular and divided military council. The street protesters have defied a military curfew and demanded a speedy transition to a civilian democratic government.
Lieutenant-General Awad Ibn Auf, the Defence Minister who announced the military takeover on Thursday and was later sworn in as interim president, announced late on Friday night on state television that he is resigning from the position.
The new leader of the military council is Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, the former chief of staff of Sudan’s ground forces under Mr. al-Bashir.
Analysts said the shuffle was an attempt to gain more support from rank-and-file members of Sudan’s military – and from the protesters, who have openly opposed the military rulers and ignored the nightly curfew that was intended to shut down the round-the-clock occupation of the streets outside the army headquarters in Khartoum.
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“How long did it take to overthrow him? Only two days!” some of the protesters chanted triumphantly after the announcement.
Another factor in the shuffle may have been Lt.-Gen. Ibn Auf’s role as a military enforcer in the Darfur crisis, which led to him being placed under U.S. sanctions in 2007. The new leader is not facing sanctions.
Sudan’s new military rulers, meanwhile, are vowing that Mr. al-Bashir will not be extradited to The Hague on a long-standing arrest warrant for crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes, despite growing demands from UN leaders and human-rights groups.
Mr. al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for 30 years before his arrest on Thursday during the military takeover, has become a crucial test case for the International Criminal Court (ICC). He is the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the court but has evaded arrest for a decade.
The ICC indicted him in 2009 and 2010 in connection with the Darfur conflict, in which more than 300,000 people have been killed. However, he defied the arrest warrant and travelled freely to many countries around the world – until his arrest in Sudan this week.
General Omar Zain al-Abideen, one of the leaders of the military council that seized power this week, said Mr. al-Bashir might be put on trial in Sudan. But he did not specify any charges and many Sudanese believe the former president will be protected by the new regime, which is dominated by long-time allies of Mr. al-Bashir.
The military council, which seized power after four months of almost daily protests across Sudan, has announced it will run the country for up to two years.
At a news conference on Friday in the capital, Khartoum, the military leaders denied their takeover was a coup. They said they were merely responding to the wishes of Sudan’s people and had no desire for long-term power. They also promised a civilian government at some point, but did not specify a date. And they insisted the military would control the key defence and interior ministries even under a civilian government.
The leaders of Sudan’s protest movement, which has mobilized tens of thousands of people for a round-the-clock sit-in at the entrance to the army headquarters in Khartoum, have promised to persist with their campaign to seek a civilian democratic government.
The protesters continued their mass street occupation overnight on Friday night at the army headquarters despite the newly imposed curfew. So far, the military has shown no signs of using violence to enforce the curfew and some soldiers have supported the protesters.
The United States and Britain have criticized the military takeover in Sudan, saying a civilian government must swiftly take over. The African Union has also condemned the takeover.
To extradite the deposed president to The Hague on the war-crimes charges would be “an ugly mark on Sudan,” Gen. al-Abideen said.
But the demands for his extradition are mounting. On Friday, the UN human-rights office called on Sudan’s leaders to “fully co-operate with the ICC.”
A coalition of human-rights groups is making the same demand. “The Sudanese people have spoken and al-Bashir has been toppled, but his crimes will not be forgotten,” said a statement by Mustafa Adam Ahmed Hussain, a Darfuri activist and a member of an international coalition in support of the ICC. “He must be sent to the ICC. He must face justice.”
Sudan’s new military rulers, however, are themselves tainted by connections to the Darfur atrocities. Lt.-Gen. Ibn Auf, who announced the military takeover on Thursday, is a career army officer and former military intelligence chief who helped organize the notorious pro-government Janjaweed, the militia group that has massacred Darfuri civilians in retaliation for their secession efforts.
In 2007, Lt.-Gen. Ibn Auf was among the Sudanese officials who were placed on a U.S. sanctions list and had his assets blocked for their role in Darfur. He was accused of fomenting violence, providing logistical support to the Janjaweed and directing its attacks.
For the ICC, the Darfur case has been vital. The court has come under increasing attack in recent years. Burundi and the Philippines have quit the court after they were the subjects of preliminary reviews by ICC investigators. Other countries, including South Africa, have threatened to quit. The ICC has also lost several high-profile attempts to pursue charges against prominent politicians in Kenya, Ivory Coast and Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Most recently, the United States has revoked the visa of the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, in retaliation for her preliminary investigation of possible U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan.