Thousands of people cheered Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir in a show of support for his embattled regime in Khartoum Wednesday, as riot police fired tear gas at protesters at a rival anti-government demonstration.
Hundreds of police officers, soldiers and security agents, some carrying machine guns, were deployed around the site of the pro-Bashir rally in the Green Yard, a large open space in the capital.
Thousands of men, women and children carrying pro-Bashir banners arrived in buses from early in the morning, almost filling the site.
The rally was the first held in Khartoum in support of the president since protests erupted.
"This gathering sends a message to those who think that Sudan will become like other countries that have been destroyed," Bashir told a cheering crowd.
"We will stop anyone who destroys our properties."
In the initial protests, which erupted on December 19 in towns and villages before spreading to Khartoum, several buildings of Bashir's ruling National Congress Party were torched.
Angry demonstrators took to the streets after a government decision to triple the price of bread at a time when the country faces an acute shortage of foreign currency and 70 percent inflation.
Analysts have described the protests as the biggest threat yet to Bashir's regime.
Authorities say at least 19 people including two security personnel have been killed during the demonstrations, but Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 40, including children.
Crowds chanted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) and "Yes, yes Bashir, we will follow you" at the rally, where the president was accompanied by his wife and a group of ministers.
As soon as Bashir arrived, mobile phone networks and the internet were shut down in and around the rally site.
"Those who tried to destroy Sudan... put conditions on us to solve our problems, I tell them that our dignity is more than the price of dollars," Bashir said in an apparent dig at Washington, which had imposed a trade embargo on Khartoum in 1997.
The embargo was lifted in October 2017, but Sudanese officials including Bashir have continued to blame Washington for the country's economic woes.
Dressed in a khaki shirt and trousers and waving his trademark cane, a smiling Bashir greeted the crowd as men and women whistled and waved flags.
"We are with our leader because our brothers want to destroy our country, but we will save it," a woman supporter told AFP.
Bashir, who has ordered the police to use "less force" on demonstrators, has blamed the violence during protests on conspirators, whom he has not named.
"Those who conspired against us and planted traitors amongst us are those who carried out arson attacks and caused damage," he told a group of soldiers on Tuesday at an army base in the town of Atbara, where the first protest erupted last month.
"Some people are saying that the army is taking power," Bashir said, slamming some political groups who previously were with the government but have now called for his resignation.
"I have no problem with that, because the army always guards the security of our homeland."
Soon after the pro-Bashir rally ended, crowds of protesters, clapping and whistling, took to the streets of Omdurman, the twin city of Khartoum, for yet another anti-government demonstration.
Chanting "Freedom, Peace, Justice" and "Revolution is the people's choice" they blocked a key road but were quickly confronted with tear gas by riot police, witnesses said.
Residents took many of the protesters into their homes when the police fired tear gas, according to onlookers.
Videos posted on social media showed some demonstrators pelting police officers with rocks. The footage could not be verified independently.
More than 800 protesters, opposition leaders, activists and journalists have been arrested since the unrest began, officials say, insisting that the situation has now stabilised even as protests rumble on.
On Wednesday, Sudan slammed Britain, Canada, Norway and the United States for their joint statement expressing concern at the situation in the country.
"The ministry of foreign affairs rejects and condemns this biased statement that is far from reality," the ministry said.
"Sudan is committed to freedom of expression and for peaceful demonstrations."
On Tuesday, the four countries had urged Khartoum to ensure a "transparent and independent investigation into the deaths of protesters".
They also called for the release of all those detained without charge, warning that Khartoum's actions would "have an impact" on its relations with their governments.