KHARTOUM (AFP) — Thousands of angry Sudanese, some brandishing swords, marched Friday through the centre of Khartoum calling for the execution of a British woman teacher as she began a brief jail term for insulting Islam.
"Those who insult the Prophet of Islam should be punished with bullets," a sea of white-clad demonstrators shouted after Gillian Gibbons, 54, was jailed for 15 days on charges stemming from naming a teddy bear Mohammed.
Others chanted "Execute her!" as Sudanese security forces deployed around the British embassy and the ambassador's residence and the demonstration, called by religious leaders during Friday prayers, spread.
The protesters flocked into the centre of the Sudanese capital from several mosques the day after a criminal court passed sentence on Gibbons.
She could have faced a maximum sentence of 40 lashes, six months' jail and a fine.
Gibbons was jailed on Thursday for allowing pupils in her class to call a teddy bear Mohammed as part of a school project.
Sheikh Hussein Mubarak told thousands of faithful gathered for the Muslim day of prayer that the court's "verdict was lenient out of fear of criticism from human rights organisations, America and the West."
The British embassy warned its citizens in Sudan about the demonstration, telling them to lie low and be vigilant.
Some of the crowd turned on an AFP correspondent and shouted at him to "Go home." He was later briefly detained by security services.
The organisers rallied the crowd using loud hailers from an improvised podium on a lorry in front of the palace of President Omar al-Beshir before they marched down one of Khartoum's main streets.
The angry crowd of men, some carrying banners declaring "Punishment, punishment, punishment" and "The entire nation is at your service, O Prophet of Allah", marched past the school were Gibbons taught a class of six- to seven-year-olds for a term until her arrest last Sunday.
The bulk of the crowd dispersed peacefully, but hundreds later congregated outside the heavily guarded British embassy, some of them on horseback.
Sudanese police prevented the crowd approaching the embassy but a Sufi religious leader was allowed to hand over a message explaining their unhappiness.
An embassy spokesman said later that the crowd had dispersed and "it looks like it's getting back to normal." He said he did not know whether Gibbons, a mother of two, was aware that the crowds were calling for her death.
In London, a Foreign Office spokesman told AFP they were aware of the demonstration but that "the local authorities are keeping it under control."
"We are pursuing diplomatic contacts with the Sudanese government," he said. "What we're searching for is a swift resolution of this issue... it's very difficult to say what will be the outcome."
He declined to say whether they were seeking Gibbons' early release.
Earlier, Sheikh Mubarak railed at what he said was an attempt "to transform Sudan from an Islamic state into a Christian state," adding that the British teacher had come to Sudan "as part of that design."
"Why did this teacher come to Sudan? She surely didn't need to emigrate from her country for the money? So she came for another reason..." he told the faithful at Al-Safa mosque in the city's eastern Jarif district.
He denounced "those who try to defend democracy and human rights and insult the Prophet," adding that he did not think the teacher would even serve out the 15-day sentence.
At the central Martyr's Mosque, another imam, Sheikh Abdul Jalil Karuri, said Gibbons "did it with the intention of insulting Islam."
The crowd responded with cries of "The army of Islam will prevail."
The trial itself took place behind a significant police barrier to avoid such demonstrations which, as with last year's publication of caricatures of Prophet Mohammed in Denmark, have previously led to violence.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the trial stemmed from an "innocent misunderstanding" as diplomatic contacts continued "in the search for a swift resolution of this issue," the Foreign Office said.
British embassy officials visited Gibbons in prison at an undisclosed location earlier Friday after she began serving her sentence. The 15-day sentence was to run from Sunday when she was arrested.
"The consul and the deputy ambassador visited her this morning and she was fine," an embassy spokesman told AFP. "She's in good spirits and she's not being mistreated or anything like that."
Friday's demonstration was called by the Committee of Ulemas and the Partisans of the Prophet as well as other religious associations. Some imams called for the faithful to congregate outside the presidential palace in the centre of Khartoum after the prayers.
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