KHARTOUM, Sudan – Sudan (search) detained 18 military officers and opposition members, including the former Islamic fundamentalist Hassan Turabi (search), for planning to stage a coup, the defense minister said Wednesday.
Turabi, who once called the United States "the incarnation of the devil" and said he regarded Usama bin Laden (search) as a hero, was taken into custody before dawn at his home in Khartoum.
It was the first government acknowledgment of a thwarted plan to oust President Omar el-Bashir (search).
Defense Minister Bakri Hassan Salih, said that state security discovered the group "was planning to carry out its plot in the coming few days, as a pre-emptive move to abort the current peace process in the country."
Salih said the officers, led by a colonel, had been planning the coup since the middle of last year, assisted by Turabi's Popular Congress party.
"The concerned bodies are currently conducting investigations and when completed those found guilty will be brought to justice," Salih said.
In recent days, Arab newspapers and the opposition Popular Congress have reported arrests in connection with an alleged coup, but the government had no direct comment until now.
Police detained Turabi at dawn on Wednesday.
Communications Minister El-Zahawi Ibrahim Malik said Turabi was arrested because he had issued a provocative statement that advocated "regionalism and tribalism."
Turabi's wife, Wisal el-Mahdi, accused the government of using the alleged coup plot as a pretext "to oppress our party."
On Monday, Turabi's party said in a statement that Sudanese police had arrested several party leaders and army officers in connection with an alleged coup plot by soldiers and security officials from the restive Darfur region.
In a statement published by state newspapers Wednesday, Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail said police were investigating "security breaches" by an undisclosed number of people. He did not mention a coup plot nor did he confirm the detainees belonged to the armed forces or Turabi's party.
The Popular Congress denies involvement in a coup plot or in the rebellion in Darfur, where armed rebels have been fighting government troops since February 2003, leaving thousands dead and forcing tens of thousands to flee.
Peace talks on Darfur convened in Chad on Wednesday. Sudan is also in negotiations with southern rebels to end a 20-year civil war.
Turabi, once a close ally of the president and a fixture in Sudanese politics since 1965, has in recent years beome the government's nemesis.
After signing a memorandum in 2001 with the southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army that encouraged any resistance against the government, Turabi was placed under house arrest and his party was banned.
He was released and the ban lifted last October amid a reform drive by el-Bashir. The move was seen as an effort to bring some northern opposition groups into a united front to strengthen his government in peace talks with the southern rebels.
The overture to Turabi was short-lived. In November, Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha accused Turabi's party of fomenting the trouble in Darfur.
Turabi was once a close ally of el-Bashir and the main ideologue of the Islamic fundamentalist government that was set up after el-Bashir seized power in 1989. The two men fell out in 1999 when el-Bashir accused Turabi, then the speaker of parliament, of trying to grab power and stripped him of his position.
In the 1990s, when Turabi had great influence over the government, Sudan was a haven for Islamic extremists such as bin Laden.
In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Turabi called the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania "understandable" and said he considered bin Laden a hero.
"Anyone who resists power or persecution — if you like him, you call him ... a freedom fighter, a revolutionary," Turabi said. "It's only when you don't like him you use another language, that he's a terrorist."
After the falling out with Turabi, el-Bashir began to move away from Islamic fundamentalism, in part, experts say, out of eagerness to get foreign aid and technology from the West to exploit oil resources.