By Khalid Abdelaziz

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan's main opposition groups on Wednesday issued their first joint call for President Omar al-Bashir to step down, appearing at a news conference together for the first time since protests erupted across the country nearly two months ago.

The opposition had been fragmented across several small but influential political parties, which formed three separate coalitions, and the Sudanese Professionals Association, a union that has led calls for demonstrations which have posed the most significant challenge to Bashir in his nearly 30-year rule.

The groups on Thursday, at their first joint press conference, called for the government to step down to pave the way for four-year transitional governance followed by elections.

"We have decided on the programme that would take place after the regime falls and (will) hold a constitutional dialogue conference at the end of the transitional period to decide how Sudan will be ruled," said Mohamed Mokhtar al-Khatib, the general secretary of the Communist party.

Sudan has seen protests, often involving hundreds of people, since Dec. 19 which were sparked by rising food prices and cash shortages and have since turned into an expression of opposition to Bashir.

Around 200 opposition members present at Wednesday's press conference chanted "Down, that's it!" - one of the main rallying calls of the protests.

Bashir held his own rally in the capital Khartoum and called for peace.

"We reaffirm that this year 2019 will be the year of peace and the permanent silencing of the rifle in Sudan, and there is a will to continue peace in Sudan and convince the other side of the utility of peace," Bashir said.

Authorities have blamed the unrest on "infiltrators" and foreign agents and said they are taking steps to resolve Sudan's economic problems.

Security forces have used tear gas, stun grenades and live ammunition to disperse demonstrators, and they have arrested hundreds of protesters and opposition figures.

(Writing by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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