Defiant al-Bashir visits Darfur

Jubilant militiamen welcomed Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on a visit to Darfur on Wednesday, two weeks after a arrest warrant was issued against him for alleged war crimes there.

Al-Bashir arrived by helicopter in the village of Sabdo near the South Darfur town of El-Daien, a day after a peacekeeper with the joint United Nations-African Union force in Darfur was killed in the area in an ambush by unknown gunmen.

Thousands of jubilant militiamen on foot and horseback welcomed the veteran Sudanese leader, clad in a green safari suit, who was expected to address the crowd amid a heavy army presence.

“We are all Rizaygat [a Muslim Arab tribe], we are all from the popular defence forces,” said militiaman Ahmed el-Hassan.

“We support the government and we’ll cut the throat of Ocampo,” he said, referring to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, who instigated al-Bashir’s prosecution at The Hague-based court.

Nearby, a donkey wore a white sheet over its head with “Ocampo” written in Arabic.

The ICC on March 4 issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the six-year Darfur conflict, including murder, torture, rape and pillage.

Since then, Khartoum has taken steps to defy mounting Western criticism of the regime, including the expulsion of 13 international aid agencies.

Days after the warrant was issued, al-Bashir made a visit to Darfur and warned peacekeepers and aid groups to obey Sudanese law or face expulsion.

The UN says the aid agency expulsions will leave 1,1-million people without food, 1,5-million without health care and more than a million without drinking water.

Many of the 300 000 people the UN says have died in the Darfur conflict starved to death or died from disease. Sudan puts the death toll from conflict at 10 000.

More than 2,7-million people have also fled their homes since ethnic minority rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government in February 2003.

Al-Bashir has said Sudan will replace the work of the expelled agencies and warned on Monday that Khartoum wanted no foreign aid organisations on the ground within a year.

“If they want to bring in aid, they will have to leave it at the airport,” he said at a rally in Khartoum.

The Sudan Media Centre, a website close to the security services, has said Khartoum is preparing an “alternative plan” to fill the gap, working instead with “national and friendly foreign NGOs”.

Sudan has said the expulsions were irreversible, accusing aid agencies of collaborating with the ICC, but they deny any complicity.

Al-Bashir’s visit comes as United States President Barack Obama was to name a new special envoy to Sudan to confront what Washington sees as the “horrendous” situation in Darfur.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also voiced fresh condemnation of al-Bashir’s expulsion of aid groups, saying he “will be held responsible for every single death that occurs in those camps”.

Oil-rich Sudan has seen its income slashed with the slump in the price of crude, and experts say it would be difficult to replace the support and experience of the relief agencies, even if the political will to do so exists.

There are also about 15 500 peacekeepers in Sudan in the joint UN-AU mission to Darfur (UNAMID), and just less than 10 000 in the UN mission monitoring a north-south peace deal (UNMIS).

Tuesday’s death brought to 14 the number of peacekeepers killed in Darfur since the hybrid mission took over from a beleaguered AU force in January 2008.—Sapa-AFP