EL-FASHER, Sudan (AFP) – Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir arrived in the North Darfur state capital of El-Fasher on Sunday, on his first visit since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest.
The trip is seen as a calculated show of defiance by Beshir in the face of mounting Western criticism of his government’s expulsion of 13 aid agencies following the ICC’s announcement of the warrant on Wednesday for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the western region of Darfur.
Beshir travelled from El-Fasher airport in an open vehicle to the centre of town along a route lined with several thousand cheering supporters.
Waving flags and pictures of the president, the tightly packed crowd chanted his name. Some also shouted “Down, down Ocampo,” referring to ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo. “Down, down America,” others called.
Beshir, wearing a safari suit and waving a stick in the air, grinned back in delight. Some supporters followed the president on horseback and on camels.
The United Nations 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.
However, foreign ministry under secretary Mutrif Siddiq warned that the expulsions was irreversible.
“The decision of the authorities expelling foreign organisations… is an irreversible decision,” he said in a statement carried by the official SUNA news agency.
Sudan accuses the aid groups of cooperating with the ICC. The relief organisations deny any complicity.
“Evidence has proved their cooperation with the so-called International Criminal Court,” Siddiq said.
UN agencies in Sudan have warned that the expulsion of key aid groups will have “devastating implications” and that in their absence “much of the aid operation literally comes to a halt.”
The expelled organisations account for “more than half” the capacity of the aid operation in Darfur, the UN says.
Remaining organisations will be allowed to operate in Sudan “as long as they are committed to the laws regulating humanitarian work”, Siddiq said.
The government is also preparing an “alternative plan” to fill the gap created by the expelled agencies, instead collaborating with “national and friendly foreign NGOs,” according to the Sudan Media Centre, a website close to the security services.
However, 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 exists.
“If the life-saving assistance these agencies were providing is not restored shortly, it will have immediate, lasting and profound impacts on the well-being of millions of Sudanese citizens,” the UN warned.
“It is not possible, in any reasonable time frame, to replace the capacity and expertise these agencies have provided over an extended period of time.”