Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, wanted on genocide and war crimes charges, remains defiant in the face of anti-regime demonstrations that have challenged his decades old iron-fisted rule.

Deadly protests have rocked Sudan since the government raised the price of bread last month amid the African country's ongoing economic crisis.

At least 19 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in protests that first erupted on December 19 in towns and villages, before spreading to the capital Khartoum.

Human Rights Watch says at least 40 people have been killed, including children.

Although similar protests marred his regime in September 2013 and in January 2017, analysts say the current demonstrations are the biggest challenge since Bashir swept to power in a coup backed by Islamists in 1989.

Indicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court in 2009 and in 2010 on genocide and war crimes charges, the president has since been re-elected twice in polls boycotted by opposition groups.

The 75-year-old has proved to be a political survivor, facing down not only the ICC indictments but also a myriad of domestic challenges.

Sudan's Bashir defiant as pressure of protests mounts

Supporters of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir wave their national flag in Khartoum on January 9, 2019

ASHRAF SHAZLY, AFP

On Wednesday, dancing and waving a stick in his trademark style, Bashir greeted hundreds of supporters at Khartoum's Green Yard in what was the first pro-regime rally in the capital since protests erupted last month.

"This gathering sends a message to those who think that Sudan will become like other countries that have been destroyed," said a defiant Bashir, flanked by his wife and security guards.

- Career soldier -

Despite ICC indictments, Bashir has flouted travel restrictions by regularly visiting regional countries and also Russia.

Days before the protests erupted he visited Damascus to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, becoming the first Arab leader to do so since the country's conflict began.

In a diplomatic development closer to home, Bashir last year hosted talks between South Sudanese rivals that helped reach a peace deal to end the war in the world's newest nation.

Sudan's Bashir defiant as pressure of protests mounts

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir swept to power in a 1989 coup

ASHRAF SHAZLY, AFP

South Sudan achieved independence in 2011, after Bashir surprised his staunchest critics by signing a peace deal to end more than two decades of north-south conflict.

The president has more recently joined a Saudi-led coalition against Shiite rebels in Yemen, improving ties with the resource-rich Gulf nations, although the policy has been criticised by his opponents at home.

A career soldier, Bashir is well known for his populist touch, insisting on being close to crowds and addressing them in colloquial Sudanese Arabic.

Bashir, who has two wives and no children, was born in 1944 in Hosh Bannaga, north of Khartoum, to a farming family.

He entered the military at a young age, rising through the ranks and joining an elite parachute regiment.

He fought alongside the Egyptian army in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

In 1989, then a brigade commander, he led a bloodless coup against the democratically elected government.

Bashir was backed by the National Islamic Front of his then mentor, the late Hassan al-Turabi.

- Hosting bin Laden -

Under Turabi's influence he led Sudan towards a more radical brand of Islam, hosting Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and sending jihadist volunteers to fight in the country's civil war with the south Sudanese.

In 1993, Washington put Sudan on its list of "state sponsors of terrorism" and four years later slapped Khartoum with a trade embargo -- only lifted in 2017 -- over charges that included human rights abuses.

Sudan's Bashir defiant as pressure of protests mounts

Raising sticks and swords, a group attends a rally in support of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum on January 9, 2019

ASHRAF SHAZLY, AFP

Bashir moved to end Sudan's isolation in 1999, ousting Turabi from his inner circle.

But when ethnic insurgents launched a rebellion in Darfur in 2003, his government's decision to unleash the armed forces and allied militia saw him face further international criticism.

More than 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict, the UN says, and more than two million displaced.

Since 2011, Bashir has also faced insurgencies in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, launched by the Southern People's Liberation Army-North.

Although he has weathered several challenges in his three-decade rule, analysts are questioning whether he will survive the latest bout of protests.

"The demonstrations have weakened his position," said Khalid Tijani, editor of economic weekly Elaff.

"President Bashir was about to get consitutional amendments to permit him to run for the presidency again in 2020, but he will now have to reconsider that."

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