Khartoum - Sudanese soldiers intervened to protect demonstrators on Monday after security forces tried to break up a protest by thousands of anti-government demonstrators camping outside the Defence Ministry in central Khartoum, witnesses and activists said.

They said that riot police and secret service personnel charged the demonstrators with pickup trucks while firing tear gas, trying to disperse a crowd estimated at around 3,000 men and women.

But witnesses and activists said that soldiers guarding the compound had come out to protect the demonstrators, firing warning shots in the air.

The security forces retreated without firing back and soldiers deployed around the area, while demonstrators chanted “The army is protecting us” and “One people, one army”, witnesses said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Information Minister Hassan Esmail, who is also the government spokesman, contradicted the reports, saying: “The crowd in front of the (military) general command has been cleared completely, in a way that resulted in no casualties among all parties ...

“The security apparatus are coherent together and working with positive energy and in harmony,” he added.

Previous attempts by security forces have failed to disperse the protesters, who have vowed to stay until Al Bashir steps down.

Mostly small but sustained protests have been staged regularly since December, when the government tried to raise bread prices.

Sudan’s 40 million people are suffering from a severe economic crisis caused in part by years of US sanctions and in part by the loss of oil revenues since South Sudan seceded in 2011.

The protests have since turned against Al Bashir, a former army general who came to power in a military coup in 1989.

Demonstrators accuse Al Bashir, who is wanted by international prosecutors for alleged war crimes in the westerly Darfur region, of presiding over years of repression and promoting policies that devastated the economy.

The government denies any atrocities in Darfur and blames US sanctions for the economic hardships.

Al Bashir has acknowledged that the protesters have legitimate demands but that they must be addressed peacefully, and through the ballot box.