Ethiopia's prime minister Friday called for a "quick" democratic transition in Sudan as he met the country's ruling generals and protest leaders, days after a deadly crackdown killed dozens of demonstrators in the capital.
Abiy Ahmed arrived in Khartoum to revive talks between the Sudanese generals and protest leaders after the African Union suspended Sudan on Thursday until the military makes way for a civilian-led transitional authority.
The move by the African bloc was backed by the European Union amid a chorus of condemnation of Sudan's military rulers over Monday's deadly crackdown on a weeks-long sit-in outside army headquarters demanding civilian rule.
"The army, the people and political forces have to act with courage and responsibility by taking quick steps towards a democratic and consensual transitional period," Abiy said in a signed statement issued to reporters after he held separate meetings with the generals and protest leaders.
"The army has to protect the security of the country and its people and political forces have to think about the future of the country," he said.
Protest leaders welcomed Abiy's mediation but insisted that any fresh talks with the generals could happen only if certain conditions were met.
"The Transitional Military Council has to admit the crime it committed," Omar al-Digeir, a prominent leader from the protest movement, the Alliance for Freedom and Change, told reporters.
He said all "military elements should also be removed from the streets across the country" and also called for an international probe into "the massacre at the sit-in".
Digeir said the military council should also restore access to the internet and allow public and media freedoms.
Since the deadly assault, fearful Khartoum residents have remained largely indoors, leaving the streets virtually deserted at a time when Muslims are normally out celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
Paramilitaries of the feared Rapid Support Forces, who have their origins in the notorious Janjaweed militia unleashed in the conflict in the western region of Darfur in 2003 and 2004, have remained stationed in a number of the capital's main squares.
Others have been seen out on patrol in their trademark pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns or rocket launchers.
"We're living in a state of terror because of sporadic gunfire," a resident of south Khartoum told AFP.
He said he was "afraid for (his) children to go out in the street," as the paramilitaries patrolled parts of the capital.
In north Khartoum, riot police fired tear gas on Thursday evening after protesters put up makeshift roadblocks made from rocks, bricks and tree trunks.
RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is deputy head of the ruling military council, has warned he will not "allow chaos" and has vowed to tear down all barricades.
Divergent death tolls
The protesters and the military authorities have given sharply divergent death tolls for the crackdown.
Doctors close to the demonstrators say 113 people were killed in Khartoum, including 40 whose bodies were pulled out of the Nile.
The health ministry says 61 people died nationwide, 52 of them by "live ammunition" in Khartoum.
The crackdown was launched after talks broke down between protest leaders and the generals on a new transitional ruling body to replace the military council that took power after the ouster of president Omar al-Bashir on April 11.
Despite several initial breakthroughs, the talks hit a deadlock over the demonstrators' demand —backed by Western and most African governments —for it to have a civilian majority and a civilian leader.
The African Union, which has its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, said it was suspending Sudan, "until the effective establishment of a civilian-led Transitional Authority, as the only way to allow the Sudan to exit from the current crisis".
The European Union said it joined the AU in calling for "an immediate end to violence and a credible enquiry into the criminal events of the last days".
There has been pressure on the generals to resume negotiations, even from Gulf Arab states that are among their key supporters.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have pledged $3 billion in emergency deposits and credit to shore up the plummeting Sudanese pound and fund imports of basic goods, has also called for renewed talks.
The generals have so far been shielded from condemnation at the United Nations by China, which has made significant investments in Sudan.
Beijing, backed by Moscow, blocked a bid at the UN Security Council on Tuesday to condemn the killing of civilians in Sudan and issue a pressing call from world powers for an immediate halt to the violence, diplomats said.
"Sudan is extremely strategic for China," said Marc Lavergne of France's National Centre for Scientific Research.
"It has huge potential resources which are not being exploited."