CAIRO — Tens of thousands of Sudanese marched toward the center of the capital Khartoum on Thursday, cheering, singing and dancing in celebration as two senior officials said the military had forced longtime autocratic President Omar al-Bashir to step down after 30 years in power.
The circumstances of al-Bashir's apparent ouster after months of intensifying protests against his rule were not clear, however, and his whereabouts were unknown. The military told the nation to expect an “important statement” soon in an announcement on state TV in the morning.
The developments raised speculation that, behind the scenes, the military aimed to install one of its one in place of al-Bashir. Organizers of the protests that have drawn tens of thousands into the streets reject that, seeing it as a way for the armed forces to keep the power that it has held under al-Bashir. Instead, they called on protesters to keep up their main sit-in outside the military's headquarters in Khartoum to pressure for a civilian transitional government.
“We are not leaving. We urge the revolutionaries not to leave the sit-in,” the Sudanese Professionals Association, one of the main organizers, said Thursday, warning against attempts to “reproduce the old regime.”
Word of al-Bashir's removal comes just over a week after Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power for 20 years, resigned in response to similar demonstrations. The mass protests bear striking resemblances to the popular uprisings in 2011 that swept across several Arab nations and ousted leaders in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen.
The two officials, in high positions in Sudan's government and military, told The Associated Press that the army forced al-Bashir to step down and was now in talks about forming a transitional government. But they did not elaborate on the nature of the talks or the possible administration. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
In an apparent concession to a demand of the protesters, the National Security and Intelligence Service said in a statement that all political detainees would be released. It did not indicate when the release would take place.
Sudan's protests initially erupted last December with rallies against a worsening economy, but quickly escalated into calls for an end to embattled al-Bashir's rule. They gained new momentum last week after Bouteflika's resignation.
As the Khartoum sit-in surged in size, the government responded with an increased crackdown. Security forces tried repeatedly to break up the sit-in since Saturday, in violence that killed at least 22 people.
Early Thursday morning, the military deployed to secure key sites and installations around Khartoum, witnesses said. Armored vehicles and tanks were parked in the streets and near bridges over the Nile River, they said, as well as in the vicinity of the military headquarters where the sit-in is taking place. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals. There were also unconfirmed reports that the airport in the Sudanese capital had been closed.
Ahead of the expected army statement, Sudanese radio played military marches and patriotic music. State TV ceased regular broadcasts, showing only the statement promising the statement and urging the public to “wait for it.”
Thousands waited at the sit-in as crowds of protesters moved through the city converging on the site. The marchers waved flags, flashed “V for victory:” signs and sang and danced. Some rode on the roofs of cars, moving slowly and honking horns in celebration.
But the hours without an army statement raised fears among protesters that the military was seeking to keep its control.
“Is there an attempt to get around the anger of the Sudanese people after they failed to end the protests by violence? If so, the revolution will continue,” said Mariam al-Mahdi, of the opposition Umma Party.
Al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 coup, leading an alliance of the military and Islamist hard-liners. Since then, the military has stuck by him, even as he was forced to allow the separation of South Sudan and as he became a pariah in many countries, wanted by by the international war crimes tribunal for atrocities in Darfur.
The protests that erupted in December have been the biggest challenge to his rule. Security forces responded from the start with a fierce crackdown that killed dozens. Al-Bashir banned unauthorized public gatherings and granted sweeping powers to the police since imposing a state of emergency in February. Security forces have used tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition and batons against demonstrators
The military, however, has seemed more equivocal, stating its support the country's “leadership” and pledging to protect its “achievements” — without mentioning al-Bashir by name. Army troops have not tried to stop protests and, in some cases, appeared to offer a measure of protection for the demonstrators.
Some in the protest movement have seen that as a willingness in the military to drop al-Bashir.