Sudan's military council head says El-Obeid killings 'regrettable'

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Sudan's military council head says El-Obeid killings 'regrettable'

FILE PHOTO: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed meets Sudan's Head Of Transitional Military Council, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan Abdelrahman to mediate in the political crisis at the airport in Khartoum

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - The head of Sudan's ruling military council said an incident in which at least four schoolchildren were shot dead at a protest was "regrettable" and called for a quick resumption of negotiations over political transition.

The children's deaths came at a time of heightened tension between Sudan's military rulers and the main opposition coalition, which called for nationwide protests in response - although the turnout was limited.

In an interview recorded on Monday and aired on state television late on Tuesday, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan said he hoped a deal between the military council and the main opposition coalition could be reached "as soon as possible".

"What happened in El Obeid and (the incidents) before are all regrettable," Burhan said. "No one accepts the death or killing of any Sudanese person, and this may be one of the motives prompting us to sign (an agreement) as soon as possible to bring life back to normal," Burhan said.

More talks between the two sides on the transition from military rule to a new sovereign council were due to take place on Tuesday but were postponed after the shooting, a pattern that has happened repeatedly after bouts of violence.

"The military council's delegation is ready to begin negotiations at any time," he added.

Six people, at least four of whom were students, were shot dead on Monday when security forces broke up a student protest in El-Obeid, some 400 km (250 miles) southwest of Khartoum, opposition-linked doctors said. The teenagers were rallying against fuel and bread shortages, residents said.

The Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition of opposition groups accused military and paramilitary forces of opening fire on the high school pupils.

The governor of North Kordofan state, General Al-Sadiq al-Tayeb Abdallah, said "infiltrators" had diverted a peaceful demonstration from its course and attacked a bank branch and tried to attack another, state news agency SUNA reported.

Burhan told journalists in the state TV interview that the protests in El-Obeid had deviated from their course and that protesters attacked markets and banks. He added he could not as of yet confirm who shot at the school children and that the matter was still under investigation.

Schools have been suspended starting on Wednesday for an indefinite period following instructions from the military council, SUNA said.

After occasions when tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the past months, just dozens protested on Tuesday on Sitteen Street, a main thoroughfare in the capital Khartoum, carrying photos of the victims, a Reuters witness said.

Dozens also demonstrated in other parts of the capital.

A member of an opposition-linked pharmacists' committee, who asked not to be named, said students and adults also went out in protest on Tuesday in El-Obeid, the state capital of North Kordofan.

He said he had accompanied a delegation from the FFC who visited on Monday to console victims' families and visit the wounded.

The FFC called for those responsible for the deaths to be held accountable and for the military council to immediately agree the details of a new transitional authority.

"I am outraged by the deaths of protesters including schoolchildren in the city El-Obeid," said African Union Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat in a tweet on Tuesday. "The right to peaceful assembly and the safety of all citizens, especially children, must be upheld."

The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum also condemned the violence on Tuesday, saying, "The use of live ammunition is never an appropriate response to a peaceful demonstration. This tragic event makes even more urgent the formation of a civilian-led transitional government that is broadly supported by the Sudanese people."

The military council has been ruling Sudan since generals ousted veteran president Omar al-Bashir on April 11.

Long-stalled negotiations over the path towards the transition collapsed altogether when security forces broke up a protest camp outside the Defence Ministry on June 3, killing dozens of people.

However, Ethiopian and African Union mediators were able to bring them back to the table, and they signed a political accord on July 17. They have been wrangling over the details of a constitutional declaration since then.

(Reporting by Omar Fahmy and Samar Ahmed in Cairo and Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum; Additional reporting by Yousef Saba; Writing by Nadine Awadalla and Yousef Saba; Editing by Alison Williams and Matthew Lewis)