China rolls out red carpet for Sudan’s al-Bashir

Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted on genocide charges, was given a red-carpet welcome on Wednesday by Chinese President Hu Jintao, despite criticism from Washington and human rights groups.

Beijing is a key military supplier to the regime in Khartoum and the biggest buyer of the country’s oil, although the majority of Sudan’s oil fields are located in the south, which will become independent on July 9.

The two presidents sat down for talks in the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing after the usual pomp and circumstance of a welcoming ceremony not often afforded to al-Bashir, who is unwelcome in many countries.

“Mr Bashir, you are a guest who has travelled from afar, and we welcome you,” Hu said in opening remarks, adding that he hoped the talks would help bolster the “traditionally friendly relations” between the two countries.

The Sudanese leader, who called Hu his “friend and brother”, thanked the Chinese leader for the “warm welcome and treatment” he had received since arriving in Beijing on Tuesday.

The pair later witnessed the signing of a economic and technological cooperation agreement, as well as two loan deals including one for a bridge project in eastern Sudan. No further details were given.

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred in Sudan’s western Darfur region, where about 300 000 people have died since 2003.

China nevertheless remains an unabashed supporter of the Sudanese leader, who was the first sitting head of state to be served an ICC arrest warrant.

The two presidents were expected to discuss the ongoing north-south peace process in Sudan, the situation in war-torn Darfur — and perhaps how al-Bashir’s regime intends to safeguard Chinese investment in his country.

‘Real partner’
In an interview with China’s official Xinhua news agency ahead of the visit, al-Bashir insisted that southern independence “will not affect the relationship” between Beijing and Khartoum, hailing China as a model “real partner”.

China and Sudan on Tuesday signed an agreement to “deepen” oil and gas cooperation in the presence of al-Bashir and other ministers, China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), the country’s top oil producer, said in a statement.

The company did not provide further details.

Beijing has defended its invitation to al-Bashir, with foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei saying on Tuesday: “As a friendly country of China, the Sudanese leader’s visit to China is quite reasonable.”

The Sudanese leader’s visit has sparked outrage among rights groups, and earned the reproach of the US State Department.

“We continue to oppose invitations, facilitation, support for travel by ICC indictees,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said on Monday.

ICC statutes dictate that any member country should arrest al-Bashir if he visits. China is not a party to those statutes, nor is the United States.

“We reserve our opinion on the ICC’s prosecution against President Bashir,” China’s Hong said on Tuesday.

Al-Bashir — who last visited China in 2006 — arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, one day late after his presidential plane was turned back to Iran while flying over Turkmenistan. Hong attributed the delay to “technical reasons”.

Cause for condemnation
New York-based Human Rights Watch described al-Bashir’s trip as “an affront to victims of heinous crimes committed in Darfur”.

“Charges of widespread murder and rape should be cause for condemnation, not an invitation,” said Balkees Jarrah, international justice counsel at HRW.

Amnesty International said earlier this month that China risked becoming a “safe haven for alleged perpetrators of genocide” if it hosted al-Bashir.

Al-Bashir and Hu may also have discussed Chinese aid to Sudan and problems in Abyei, a disputed border area claimed both by al-Bashir’s Khartoum-based northern Sudan regime and the rival government in the south.

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Monday to send a 4 200-strong Ethiopian peacekeeping force to Abyei in a bid to douse tensions.

The Sudanese leader had been due to stay in China until Thursday, but it was unclear whether his delayed arrival would now prolong his stay. – AFP

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Susan Stumme
Susan Stumme is a senior editor for Agence France-Presse in Washington.

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