KHARTOUM (AFP) – Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir has vowed to press ahead with peace efforts in Darfur despite the international arrest warrant against him, ahead of a weekend visit to the conflict zone.
“The ICC (International Criminal Court) will not change anything in the government’s plans and programmes,” Beshir said, according to a statement published by the state news agency SUNA.
“The government will press ahead with all steps for peace… and will conduct free and fair elections,” he told a late-night Thursday meeting of Sudan’s top politicians.
Al-Beshir lashed out at the West over a warrant for his arrest which has split the world and sparked fears of insecurity and a humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
Sudan reacted swiftly to the ICC decision to seek Beshir’s arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity by expelling around a dozen foreign relief agencies, a move that could threaten aid to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.
Sudan’s allies, including a string of African and Arab states and China, called for the suspension of the ICC warrant, warning it could undermine efforts to end the six-year conflict in Darfur.
Khartoum has vowed it will not cooperate with The Hague-based court, which accuses Beshir of masterminding a campaign of extermination, rape and pillage in Darfur.
Beshir remained defiant on Thursday as thousands of angry Sudanese staged a mass demonstration in Khartoum, some setting ablaze American and Israeli flags and effigies of ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo.
“The true criminals are the leaders of the United States and Europe,” Beshir said, charging that bodies such as the ICC were instruments of “neo-colonialism.”
The 65-year-old, who seized power in a coup 20 years ago, has become the first sitting president to be issued with an ICC arrest warrant, facing five counts of crimes against humanity and two of war crimes.
The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died since conflict broke out in Darfur in 2003, when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated regime for a greater share of resources and power.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the European Union said Beshir must face justice, but analysts say there is little prospect of him being hauled before the court with world powers deeply divided over the way forward.
“President Beshir will have a chance to have his day in court if he believes that the indictment is wrongly charged. He can certainly contest it,” Clinton said.
But calls mounted among Khartoum’s allies for the warrant to suspended, including energy-hungry China, which supplies military aid to Beshir’s government and relies on Sudan for oil imports.
The African Union said after an emergency meeting in Addis Ababa it will send a delegation to the United Nations to try to halt the warrant “to give a chance for peace in Sudan.”
Many fear the warrant could plunge Sudan — torn apart by war for much of its half century of independence — into further chaos, and aid agencies were warning of the potential fallout of their expulsion.
A coalition of 62 human rights groups from Ghana, Niger, Nigeria and Zambia stated that the warrant “would no doubt scuttle international efforts towards peace in Darfur and could also lead to further instability.”
There are an estimated 2.7 million homeless and others also at risk of disease and hunger.
The expulsions — which affect major organisations including Oxfam and Medicins Sans Frontieres — drew a swift response from UN chief Ban Ki-moon, the EU and the US, with each calling on Khartoum to change its mind.
“The decision by the government of Sudan to expel 13 non-governmental organisations involved in aid operations in Darfur will, if implemented, cause irrevocable damage to humanitarian operations there,” the UN chief’s spokeswoman Michele Montas said in a statement.
“As such, (Ban) appeals to the government of Sudan to urgently reconsider the above decision,” she added.
UN Deputy Humanitarian Chief Katherine Bragg said Sudan’s move was not consistent with prior assurances from Khartoum on the security of aid missions in the event a warrant was issued.
“These actions are contrary to the assurances we received that humanitarian operations would continue and be protected,” she told reporters.
Bragg said the United Nations had contingency plans in the event some NGOs would cease operation but, she added, “the scale and the immediacy … is a bit of a surprise.”
Foreign agencies in Sudan provide essential aid to the estimated 2.7 million people made homeless by the war in Darfur.
Beshir told a cabinet meeting that the number of expelled aid groups was 10, but Sudan’s humanitarian affairs chief Hassabo Mohammed Abdel Rahman said more could be expelled, accusing those already ordered out of collaborating with the ICC by sending “fabricated evidence… about genocide.”
Between 200-300 foreign staff are estimated to be affected.
MSF warned the expulsions will have “terrible consequences” for the people of Darfur.
Security has also been beefed up around foreign embassies amid fears of reprisals and expatriates have been urged to avoid public places.
The Sudanese army broadcast a stark warning on state radio against anyone trying to exploit the court decision and world leaders have called for restraint.