Sudan’s air force chief insists army prepared to hand over power

Sudan’s air force chief insists army prepared to hand over power

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A leading member of Sudan’s ruling military council has said the army is prepared to eventually hand over power to civilians but will continue to rule the country until elections are held.

In the first interview by a council member to western media since Sudanese troops raided a pro-democracy sit-in last week, leaving more than 100 people dead, Lieutenant General Salah Abdel Khalig insisted the seven-man military junta wanted a return to civilian government once national security had been guaranteed.

“We do not want to rule Sudan forever, a few months and we will go home,” Lt Gen Khalig, head of the air force, told the Financial Times from the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum. The military would even invite the UN to run the vote, he added, but for reasons of national security the army must remain in charge until then.

The military seized power in April, ousting long-serving president Omar al-Bashir after four months of anti-government protests. Initially welcomed as liberators, talks between the transitional military council and protest movement leaders broke down over the structure of an interim government, before security forces turned their guns on the people last week.

International mediators, including US diplomat Tibor Nagy, who arrived in Sudan on Wednesday, and Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, are seeking to rebuild trust between the two sides. To allow mediation efforts to progress, the civilian opposition ended a general strike on Wednesday and the transitional military council agreed to release political prisoners. But Lt Gen Khalig played down the chance of a breakthrough.

“I feel these negotiations will not go well. They behave like kids — they are not behaving like adult politicians,” he said of the protest leaders who he believes are unwilling to compromise.

Civilians can participate in interim institutions but executive authority must remain with the military as a protection against rebel activity and a revival of the Islamist groups that shared power with the army under Mr Bashir, Lt Gen Khalig said. “We are assuring that the Islamic system will not take power again because it brought us a lot of sanctions, a lot of the problems with the free world,” he said.

Given the military’s close involvement in Sudan’s politics over 50 years, most activists are suspicious and believe the army has no interest in handing over control and wants continued access to power to protect its interests. In Sudan, army officer Gaafar Nimeiry took power in 1969 after seizing control in a military coup, only to be toppled by his own soldiers in 1985. Elections were held a year later but the military took control again in 1989 through Mr Bashir.

For Lt Gen Khalig’s military council, there are concerns that a civilian-led interim government would look to investigate and prosecute officers that ruled alongside Mr Bashir. The opposition has also demanded an international investigation into last week’s killings before talks can restart. The military council has said it is conducting its own inquiry, which the opposition has decried as a charade.

Recounting that investigation’s version of events, Lt Gen Khalig denied the military council ordered members of the feared Rapid Support Forces to attack the sit-in, as alleged by the opposition and many victims.

The police, supported by a mixed group of army and RSF soldiers, had intended to clear just one section of the sit-in where alleged criminal activity was taking place, he said. Some of those forces and others, who have since been arrested, then attacked the sit-in against the wishes of the army’s senior leadership, he added.

His own son, a 28-year-old commercial airline pilot, often visited the sit-in and could have been killed had he been there on the night of the attack, he pointed out.

Lt Gen Khalig also said the military filmed the operation using a reconnaissance aircraft, generating footage that would be integral to any international investigation, though such a probe may never take place.

“Sometimes international interference in things like this can make the situation more complicated because they may also have an agenda,” he said. “For me personally, I am ready if they come, but the council will take this decision as a group.”

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