Thousands demonstrate in Khartoum

Thousands of protestors including Sudanese government ministers, religious leaders and students, marched on Wednesday through the streets of the capital, Khartoum, to demonstrate against "foreign interference" in the troubled western Darfur region.

The peaceful protest was organised by the Organisation for the Protection of Faith and Nation - a grouping of trade unions, student associations and religious organisations, sources said.

Starting in the morning from the city centre, the placard-waving crowd later headed to the United Nations offices and handed over a letter. Various Sudanese leaders addressed the gathering.

Sources told IRIN in Khartoum that the demonstrators, in their letter, demanded that the two rebel groups fighting the Sudanese government in Darfur - the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A), be disarmed immediately.

The demonstration came days after the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding the disarming of Janjawid militias who are accused of committing atrocities in Darfur, within 30 days.

The resolution, passed on Friday, paved the way for Council members to introduce measures against Sudan if it failed to comply, including economic penalties, restricting transport and communications and severing diplomatic relations.

UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has said Sudan had indicated it wanted to comply with the Council's demand to meet its pledges to disarm the militias and to restore security for displaced people in Darfur.

Annan told reporters in New York on Tuesday that Khartoum had "got the message loud and clear". The Council, he added, wanted to see "results on the ground", and for the Sudanese government to show "demonstrably that they are determined, that they are serious, and that they are protecting the people".

"And this has to be seen by the people and felt by the people, [and] not by public declarations," UN News quoted him as saying.

The resolution called on Khartoum to fulfil commitments it made in a statement issued jointly with the UN Secretary-General on 3 July, particularly by facilitating international relief efforts, removing restrictions and easing access to those affected in Darfur.

Calling for an independent investigation into human rights violations and a resumption of talks with the JEM and SLM/A, the Council endorsed the deployment of international monitors and a protection force, under the leadership of the African Union, to Darfur.

Sudanese government officials however, angrily denounced the resolution. Foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said it did not address the causes of the Darfur conflict and the 30-day period "was illogical and difficult to be implemented".

A spokesman for the armed forces said the resolution was "a declaration of war".

On Tuesday, Sudanese radio reported that President Umar al-Bashir had said the situation in Darfur was progressing positively and that thousands of citizens affected by the recent incidents had returned to their homes.

The radio quoted the president as saying his government had supplied enough relief food to Darfur to last through October and reasserted that the protection of Sudanese citizens was the responsibility of the government. He said Sudan would not accept foreign troops in Darfur, the radio added.

Meanwhile, the AU, which has deployed a protection force to Darfur, said it planned to boost their number from 300 to 2,000, if the AU members approved the plan. International news agencies reported the AU as saying that Nigeria and Rwanda had offered to send 1,000 troops each.

The Darfur crisis, which has been called the "worst humanitarian crisis of our time" by United States President George Bush, has displaced about 1.2 million people and forced another 180,000 to flee to Chad.

Last week, the European Commission (EC) said it was extremely concerned about the magnitude of the crisis. Noting that thousands of people were estimated to have died over the past 12 months, the EC said about two million people, a third of the entire Darfur population, were badly affected.

"The EC has urged the government of Sudan to abide by its obligations regarding the protection of its own civilians. This includes actively disarming and prosecuting armed groups acting against civilians," it said.