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A diplomatic offensive in Sudanese president's behalf

Khartoum, hoping to quash or delay charges against Bashir over Darfur, even seeks out rivals.

July 24, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, KENYA — Sudan's diplomatic offensive against the International Criminal Court is gaining momentum in Africa, but faces stiff odds before the U.N. Security Council.

The government of Sudan has been waging a high-profile political campaign since the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, last week filed charges of genocide and crimes against humanity against the country's leader. President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir is accused of responsibility for alleged crimes against civilians in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.

In recent days, Sudanese diplomats have fanned out to more than a dozen countries, trying to persuade allies and sometimes archrivals to pressure the United Nations to use its authority to quash or postpone an arrest warrant against Bashir, which is expected to be formally issued in coming months.

"They are doing what they have always excelled in: buying time and delaying the process," said Taisier Ali, a former Sudanese rebel leader and now director of the Peacebuilding Center for the Horn of Africa in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.

He said Bashir's government used a similar strategy in 2007 to keep U.N. peacekeepers out of Darfur for nearly a year. "Khartoum has been successful in that game, and they've been emboldened by the past."

Darfur has been beset by violence since a rebellion against the central government began in 2003. At least 200,000 people have died because of the conflict, according to most estimates, and many of the deaths have been blamed on militias that critics say were unleashed by the government to quell the rebellion.

On Monday, after heavy lobbying and warnings of regional instability, the African Union called for a delay in the Hague court's proceedings. In contrast to the AU's recent divisions over how to respond to political violence in Zimbabwe during the reelection campaign of longtime President Robert Mugabe, the organization seems largely united in its support for Sudan.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi warned against a "single-minded pursuit of justice" that might hurt efforts to achieve peace in Darfur.

He noted that an outstanding warrant of the court against northern Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony, who is accused of kidnapping thousands of children and turning them into soldiers, is believed to be one of the reasons the guerrilla leader refuses to sign a peace accord.

"Concern for justice should not trump concern for peace," Meles said.

Sudanese officials are also portraying the court case against Bashir as an affront to African sovereignty. Khartoum's pro-government Sudan Vision newspaper said recently that Bashir's prosecution marked a "new post-colonial period" by an "evil triangle" consisting of the U.S., Britain and France.

American and French officials have hinted that they might veto efforts in the Security Council to delay the case. Under the court's statute, the council may vote to suspend prosecution of a case for a year. Sudan is hoping allies China and Russia would support such a move.

Meanwhile, at home, Sudan is reaching out to opposition groups and orchestrating regular demonstrations against the International Criminal Court, or ICC.

On Wednesday, Bashir made a rare visit to Darfur, where he was scheduled to meet with local officials and tribal leaders. The two-day tour is meant to highlight government claims that violence in the region is declining and that displaced people -- estimated at more than 2 million -- are returning to their villages, though aid workers privately dispute such characterizations. Sudanese television ran shots of cheering crowds greeting the president in the town of El Fasher. Locals said the reception was largely by government employees, soldiers and students.

"He's trying to show the world that he supports the people of Darfur, but the people know the truth," said Khalil Adam Abdulkarim, a former government minister who quit several years ago after his home village was attacked by government troops.

"People in Darfur were very happy to see the ICC warrants," he said. "The only ones crying now for Bashir are those who are benefiting from him."

In the international arena, Sudan is moving quickly to shore up support from neighbors. Last week it announced that it would restore diplomatic ties with neighbor Chad, a longtime rival that Sudan has accused of supporting Darfur rebels.

Even Eritrea, which has often criticized Bashir's government and shelters several Sudanese rebel groups, voiced support for its neighbor, calling the ICC case "an insult" and "harassment" from Western powers.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, after meeting with a Sudanese envoy this week, said Bashir should not be "subjected to legal recourse in courts that may not have an understanding of the conflict."

He warned that any moves to isolate Bashir's government would be "counterproductive."

Support from African governments is not surprising, said Ali, the former rebel leader.

"It's not for love of Bashir or Sudan," he said. "Many of those leaders have too many skeletons in their own closet. Today it's Bashir, tomorrow it might be one of them."

--

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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