OMDURMAN, Sudan (AFP) - Sudan's former leader Sadiq al-Mahdi held an unusual show of force on Saturday, telling thousands of followers that the regime of President Omar al-Bashir has to go, 24 years after it toppled Mr Mahdi.
"From today, we will sign on to the ticket of liberation to have a new regime," Mr Mahdi told his faithful gathered on a sandy outdoor square in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman.
"We will do this through peaceful sit-ins," said the chief of the opposition Umma Party. "And now we call for the regime to go." Mr Mahdi, prime minister of a coalition government formed after elections in 1986, was toppled in a bloodless Islamist-backed coup led by Bashir on June 30, 1989.
The Umma leader normally addresses his faithful before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which this year begins in about 10 days.
But Saturday's rally was unusually large and comes during an opposition campaign to peacefully unseat the regime which is battling economic difficulties, armed rebellions in parts of the country, and internal dissension.
Mr Mahdi is the great grandson of a Muslim religious leader known as the Mahdi whose forces defeated the British at Khartoum in 1885.
Saturday's rally took place across from the Mahdi's tomb.
Policemen in helmets, some carrying shields, stood every few metres along a wall surrounding the field.
Riot police trucks and plainclothes security agents were stationed across from the rally site but did not intervene.
Buses parked near the field carried banners identifying the outlying states from where they had come with Mr Mahdi's partisans.
He told them that Bashir's regime represented "a quarter-century of failure," and called on the ruling National Congress Party to reform itself.
"They found Sudan united and now we are divided," he said, adding that the nation is in economic "crisis" while war rages in several areas.
But in a message to the Sudan Revolutionary Front rebel alliance Mr Mahdi said: "Armed struggle is not the right way to overthrow the regime."
The alliance includes rebels who have been fighting for 10 years in the western Darfur region, as well as insurgents from a two-year war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
"Bashir go, go," the crowd shouted, between calls of "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest).
Mr Mahdi also served as prime minister from 1966-67 and critics say his time has past.
"He's not serious in changing this regime," said a youth activist from another opposition party Haq, the New Forces Democratic Movement.
He noted that Mr Mahdi's son, Abdelrahman Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, is a presidential assistant.
"He's in bed with the government on one side and then he talks all this opposition talk on the other side," a businessman said of the Umma Party leader.
"Well when it comes down to it, he's not supporting a movement against the regime."