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Sudan unrest a warning to government to seek dialogue: Britain

Cars burn in front of a building during protests over fuel subsidy cuts in Khartoum September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer
Cars burn in front of a building during protests over fuel subsidy cuts in Khartoum September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A week of deadly unrest in Sudan should serve as a warning to the government to solve conflicts through national dialogue, a senior British official said on Wednesday, in the strongest foreign criticism of Khartoum's crackdown on protests.

Protests and riots erupted in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities last week against the lifting of fuel subsidies, triggering a clampdown by security forces.

Sudanese human rights activists and some diplomats say that up to 150 people died after security forces opened fire on crowds. The government puts the death toll at 34 and denies shooting any protesters.

"I hope that the answer is that these protests will be a warning to everyone including the government that the situation needs to be addressed," Simon Fraser, permanent undersecretary in the British Foreign Office, told reporters during a visit to Khartoum to discuss development aid projects.

"It would be a very good outcome if they were to lead, although tragic in themselves, and unacceptable, if this was to lead to an acceleration of a genuine process for comprehensive national dialogue," he said.

The unrest has been some of the worst directed against veteran President Omar Hassan al-Bashir seized power in a 1989 coup, but protests have been much smaller in recent days.

Some 30 women gathered on Wednesday near the military headquarters and Bashir's guest house, demanding information about the fate of the dead protesters and the release of prisoners, a witness said.

On Monday, authorities said 700 people had been arrested for taking part in "criminal vandalism".

The government cut subsidies to ease a financial crunch since the secession of oil-producing South Sudan in 2011, which deprived Khartoum of three-quarters of the crude output it relied on for state revenues and foreign currency needed to import food.

The protests were much larger than demonstrations last year against corruption, inflation and earlier fuel subsidy cuts - but still much smaller than the masses who ousted autocratic rulers in Egypt and Tunisia in Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.

Bashir has stayed in power despite rebellions, U.S. trade sanctions, an economic crisis, an attempted coup last year and an indictment from the International Criminal Court on charges of masterminding war crimes in the western region of Darfur.

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing and Khalid Abdelaziz; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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