Tension mounted in Sudan on Wednesday ahead of a decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on whether to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir over alleged crimes in war-torn Darfur.
Security was beefed up outside foreign embassies, with large protests expected if the ICC issues a warrant on any of the multiple charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Al-Bashir has already dismissed any eventual ICC ruling, saying it would be worthless.
In a show of defiance on Tuesday, the president danced for cheering supporters at a rally in northern Sudan. An effigy of the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, was torched.
”They will issue their decision tomorrow, and we are telling them to immerse it in water and drink it,” al-Bashir said, using a common Arabic insult meant to show extreme disrespect.
”It will not be worth the ink it is written in,” he said.
The Hague-based court has said it will announce its decision at 13:00 GMT on Wednesday.
Dozens of Darfuris were planning to gather on Wednesday outside the court in memory of victims of the conflict, said Sara Tesorieri, a spokesperson for several Darfur groups involved in the action. Similar gatherings were planned in London, Rome and Brussels.
An arrest warrant for al-Bashir would be a milestone for the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, which started work in 2002 and has never before ordered the arrest of a sitting head of state.
It would also put him alongside former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and ex-Liberian leader Charles Taylor as heads of state indicted for war crimes while in office. Both of them were forced from power and ended up on trial at international tribunals in The Hague.
Local media are predicting demonstrations in the capital Khartoum on Wednesday against any warrant, with larger rallies expected later in the week.
A country heading for chaos?
Many Sudanese believe that formal charges against al-Bashir could plunge the country into chaos.
Some fear it could embolden rebels in Darfur to launch further attacks, or cause government forces to launch reprisals against those seen to support a warrant.
The joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) said its patrols are ”operating as normal”, but that its troops were ”closely monitoring the state of affairs throughout the area”.
However, sources within the mission said the situation was tense in Darfur.
”Our guys on the ground feel that there is tension; the Sudanese security forces are much more visible in Darfur,” said a UNAMID official, who declined to be named.
Many southern Sudanese also fear that the key Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) — the United States-brokered deal that ended two decades of north-south civil war in 2005 — could be affected by any warrant.
Al-Bashir remains a figure of hate for many in the south, but people there also crave peace to rebuild their war-shattered land.
Salva Kiir, the president of the semi-autonomous south, said he was ”committed to justice — without compromising peace and stability”.
Kiir, who is also first vice president in a unity government with al-Bashir, said north and south would work together ”to politically and diplomatically handle the decision of the court”.
The former rebel stressed that the continuation of Sudan’s peace efforts were vital.
”The two parties shall seriously and genuinely address the conflict in Darfur, the full implementation of the CPA, pursue national reconciliation and the healing process,” Kiir said in a statement late on Tuesday.
Concern over safety of foreigners
There is concern among the international community that protesters could direct their anger at foreigners in Sudan.
The UN employs about 32Â 000 people across Sudan including local staff, while thousands of other nationalities also live and work in the country.
However, the government has moved to reassure foreigners in Sudan that they will be protected.
Darfur’s strongest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has threatened to refocus efforts to topple al-Bashir if a warrant is issued and he fails to cooperate.
JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim said earlier this week that his troops would retaliate if reprisals were taken against the people of Darfur.
”If they harm civilians, JEM will react,” Ibrahim said. ”Even in Khartoum, JEM is ready to protect the civilians.”
Other rebels have also vowed to respond with force to any military reaction by Khartoum.
Mahgoub Hussein, a London-based spokesperson for the unity faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), said on Tuesday that its forces were ready ”to counter any military reaction by the Sudanese government”.
”ICC has a strong case”
Meanwhile, the chief prosecutor of the ICC, Moreno Ocampo, said on Tuesday that dozens of witnesses will testify that al-Bashir controlled a genocidal campaign aimed at wiping out three ethnic African tribes in the vast nation south of Egypt.
”We have strong evidence against Mr Bashir,” Moreno Ocampo said. ”More than 30 witnesses will [testify] how he managed to control everything and we have strong evidence of his intention.”
The war in Darfur began in 2003, when rebel ethnic African groups, complaining of discrimination and neglect, took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. UN officials say up to 300Â 000 people have died and 2,7-million have fled their homes. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10Â 000.
In 2005 the UN Security Council asked Moreno Ocampo to investigate crimes in Sudan’s western Darfur region.
Sudan and its allies in the AUand Arab League have lobbied the Security Council to postpone the case by a year so UN and AU efforts to end the six-year conflict can continue. But disagreement among veto-wielding members makes that unlikely.
The United States, France and Britain oppose a delay. Russia and China, which has strong economic ties with Sudan, would likely support one, council diplomats said.
”Certainly, the council is still divided on this issue,” Libya’s acting UN ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who is the current council president, told a news conference on Tuesday. ”There is nothing scheduled by the council as an immediate reaction to the decision of the ICC.”
Moreno Ocampo has asked for arrest warrants on 10 charges, including genocide, murder, torture, extermination and rape. He said Sudanese troops and the janjaweed Arab militia they support murdered civilians and continued to prey on them in refugee camps. He said the militia engaged in a campaign of rape to drive women into the desert, where they die of starvation. — AFP and Sapa-AP