Sudan military orders release of four civilian ministers

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Sudan's army chief on Thursday ordered the release of four civilian ministers detained since he led a military coup last month, as international pressure mounted to restore the democratic transition.

The move by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan came as the army said the formation of a new government was "imminent".

Burhan -- Sudan's de facto leader since the 2019 ouster of autocratic president Omar al-Bashir -- last week dissolved the government, detained the civilian leadership, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and declared a state of emergency.

"We are considering all internal and external initiatives to serve the national interest," Burhan's media advisor Taher Abouhaga said. "The government formation is imminent."

Hours later, Sudan TV said Burhan had ordered the release of four officials: Hashem Hassabalrasoul, Ali Geddo, Hamza Baloul and Youssef Adam.

Hassabalrasoul is telecommunications minister, Geddo heads the trade ministry, Baloul is information minister and Adam holds the youth and sports portfolio.

It was not immediately clear when the ministers will be released.

The decision came shortly after a phone call between Burhan and UN head Antonio Guterres, who personally appealed to the military chief to restore the democratic transition.

Guterres encouraged "all efforts towards resolving the political crisis in Sudan and urgently restoring the constitutional order and Sudan's transitional process", a United Nations statement said.

Later Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Burhan as well, calling for the "immediate restoration of the civilian-led government" and the release of all political figures detained since the coup, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Blinken also spoke with Hamdok, reiterating the "strong support of the United States for the Sudanese people who seek democracy", according to a separate statement from Price.

- 'Releases in batches' -

On Wednesday, Burhan met with the African Union envoy for the Horn of Africa Olusegun Obasanjo and said that "a government of technocrats was about to be appointed", state news agency SUNA said. The AU suspended Sudan after the coup.

Western diplomats have called for Hamdok's reinstatement, while Arab powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates urged the civilian-led transition to be restored.

Tut Gatluak, South Sudanese presidential advisor and head of a mediation delegation, said the order to free the ministers came after separate meetings with both Burhan and Hamdok, who remains under effective house arrest.

"We agreed that detainees would be released in batches," Gatluak told AFP in Khartoum. "We called for all detainees to be released."

Key figures have remained in detention including sovereign council member Mohamed al-Fekki, Hamdok's advisor Yasser Arman and minister of cabinet affairs Khalid Omar Youssef.

Sudan has since August 2019 been ruled by a joint civilian-military council as part of the now derailed transition to full civilian rule.

Deepening splits and long-simmering tensions between the military and civilians have marred the transition.

Gatluak said negotiations were ongoing to form a government.

"Burhan has no problem with Hamdok returning to his position of prime minister, but he doesn’t want the situation to go back as before October 25," the day of the coup, Gatlauk said.

"Hamdok remains the first nominee for the head of cabinet, but that's in case he agrees," he added.

But Hamdok, a British-educated economist who worked for the United Nations and African organisations, "wants the situation to go back as it was before October 25", he said.

Burhan, a veteran general who served under Bashir's three-decades-long rule, insisted the army takeover was "not a coup" but a move "to rectify the course of the transition".

The army's power grab sparked days of mass protest in cities across Sudan, with at least a dozen people killed as heavily armed security forces opened fire, according to medics.

On Thursday, small gatherings of protesters rallied in neighbourhoods around Khartoum chanting "Down with military rule."

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