Sudan demands public apology from Brown

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan has accused Gordon Brown of deliberately undermining the Darfur peace talks and has demanded a public apology after the British prime minister’s threat of new sanctions against Sudan if the talks fail.

Brown’s remarks amounted to direct encouragement to Darfur’s rebels to continue fighting and boycott the negotiations which started in Libya at the weekend, al-Bashir told the Guardian on Wednesday. “We read it as encouraging these people, the movements—‘Make these talks fail so that we will be able to punish the government of Sudan’,” he said.

The Sudanese government sent a delegation to the talks and announced a unilateral ceasefire on the opening day. But Darfur’s main armed groups have refused to attend the talks, which were meant to end five years of war that have left two million people homeless and caused up to 200 000 deaths.

Now mediators from the United Nations and the African Union are planning to meet the rebel leaders in their exile headquarters outside Sudan, as well as in Darfur.
They are hoping to prevent the talks collapsing, as an earlier effort did last year.

In an exclusive interview in the presidential residence, the first he has given any western reporter this year, al-Bashir made it clear where he thinks the blame for failure will lie. “It will be the responsibility of the external interventions, particularly from Britain, France and the United States,” he said.

His anger was prompted by comments Brown made to reporters in Britain on Sunday, the day after the talks started in Colonel Moammar Gadaffi’s home town of Sirte. The Libyan leader is hosting the talks, but has no role as a mediator.

Although Brown praised Sudan for announcing a ceasefire, and called on all parties to join it, he singled out the government of Sudan for possible punishment. “Of course if parties do not come to the ceasefire there’s a possibility we will impose further sanctions on the government,” he said.

Michael O’Neill, Britain’s special envoy to Sudan, read out an amended statement in the prime minister’s name in Sirte later the same day. “We stand ready to take tough action with our partners against any party that obstructs progress, including new sanctions,” it said.

On Wednesday Downing Street was forced to issue a clarification. It said that Mark Malloch Brown, the minister for Africa, had rung Nafi Ali Nafi, the chief Sudanese negotiator in Libya, on Sunday to explain that the prime minister meant to say that sanctions might be imposed on the Darfurian rebels as well as the government. “The prime minister’s written statement is on the website. It covers any omission in his earlier oral statement. We’ve accepted there was an omission. We’re aware it’s caused some offence.”

The Sudanese foreign ministry summoned Rosalind Marsden, Britain’s ambassador to Khartoum, on Wednesday to protest.

Al-Bashir went further by demanding a public apology. Asked if he accepted that there had been a misunderstanding, he said: “We very well read and understand English. There was no misunderstanding at all. The statement was very clear.”

The Darfur issue would have been solved by now if there had not been a constant pattern of external intervention, long before Brown’s weekend statement, he argued. “What we suffer here, and in Darfur in particular, and the problems in Sudan in general, are caused by these three powers, Britain, France and the United States,” he said. The three countries continually adopted resolutions at the UN to punish the Sudanese government, he added.

Sudan has come under fire from those three countries in the UN Security Council for being primarily responsible for the activities of government forces and the allied Janjaweed militia in burning villages, raping women, and driving hundreds of thousands of people into camps for the displaced in 2003 and 2004, and of still not providing security.

They also accuse it of creating obstacles for the new UN/African Union peace force and for UN aid agencies and other humanitarian workers, as well as rejecting demands to punish officials suspected of crimes against humanity or hand them to the international criminal court. The UN has imposed some sanctions, while the US enforces its own, tougher, ones.

But al-Bashir insisted that the roots of the problem in Darfur lay in desertification, which left the farmers there struggling. There was also banditry. People took up arms for various reasons, including tribal disputes.

A peacekeeping force run by the AU and the UN is due to arrive in Darfur in January. Western governments have been pressing for its 26 000 troops and police to include some non-African contingents, partly to ensure it is more robust than the smaller all-African force now deployed in Darfur. Al-Bashir said this was unnecessary. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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