KHARTOUM, SUDAN // Sudan's president, wanted by an international court on war crimes charges, danced and waved a cane defiantly in front of thousands of supporters today, denouncing the tribunal, the UN and aid agencies as part of a new "colonialism" that aims to destabilise his country. The warrant against the president, Omar al Bashir, was having its first repercussions on the ground, after his government ordered 10 leading humanitarian aid agencies to leave Darfur in retaliation for the International Criminal Court's decision.
The agencies today were starting the process to move out. Aid workers warned that the expulsion order could spark a humanitarian crisis for up to 2 million people in Darfur who are directly served by the 10 agencies, receiving food, shelter and medical supplies. At least 2.7 million people in the large, arid region of western Sudan have been driven from their homes in the war between Darfur rebels and the government since 2003 - and many more depend on international aid to survive.
The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called the order "a serious setback to lifesaving operations in Darfur." The aid groups, which included Oxfam, CARE and Save the Children, protested that they had nothing to do with the Netherlands-based ICC's decision yesterday. In the capital, Khartoum, senior UN officials were meeting with government officials in a last attempt to negotiate a deal to stay. Al Bashir, who faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, is accused by the ICC of overseeing an anti-insurgency campaign in Darfur in which atrocities were carried out against civilians.
At least 300,000 people have died in Darfur in the fighting, which pits ethnic African rebels against the Arab-led Khartoum government and Arab militiamen. Speaking for the first time since the warrant was issued yesterday, al Bashir told a Cabinet meeting that the tribunal, the United Nations and international organisations operating in Sudan were "tools of the new colonialism" meant to bring Sudan and its resources under control.
Al Bashir said the aid organisations were trying to disrupt peace efforts in Darfur and interfere with foreign investment and that his government ordered them out of Darfur because they violated the law. "We in Sudan have always been a target of the UN and these organisations because we have said, 'No,"' al Bashir said. "We said the resources of Sudan should go to the people of Sudan." Appearing before tens of thousands of supporters at a Khartoum rally later Thursday, al Bashir warned international missions and organisations still operating in the country "to respect themselves," saying they would be "humiliated" if they infringe on Sudan's sovereignty. Al Bashir danced and swayed with the crowd outside his Republican Palace in the biggest demonstration in Sudan in years.
The crowd cheered: "Go, go, al Bashir," and "Khartoum, rise against injustice." "We are ready to resist colonialism," said al Bashir, jabbing his cane in the air as he spoke. "We are ready to defend our religion." He denounced the leaders of the United States and Europe as the "real criminals ... who are coming up with new lies." "They think we will kneel down to them," he said. "We say, 'No."' The arrest warrant is the ICC's first against a sitting head of state.
Al Bashir has rejected the charges and his government has said it will not co-operate with the court. UN officials said their staff will continue to deal with al Bashir in Sudan because he remains the president of the country. Aid workers from the targeted groups said today that staff were in the process of departing Darfur, while getting clearances from security operatives on the ground. One UN official said the process is taking time in some cases because of security procedures.
The workers and official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. International groups might have drawn the president's ire in part by repeatedly criticising China, which buys two-thirds of Sudan's petroleum exports, for not using its economic leverage to apply more pressure on al-Bashir's government. China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference today that China backs a call by the African Union and Arab countries to have any prosecution of al Bashir deferred.
"China opposes anything that could disrupt efforts to realise peace in Darfur and in Sudan," he said. "We hope the relevant parties will take full consideration of the possible repercussions of this decision." Sudanese officials attending an African Union meeting in Ethiopia on Thursday asked AU nations who are party to tribunal to withdraw from the Rome treaty that set up the court in 2002. There was no decision taken on the request at the meeting. Many in Darfur fear that Khartoum will lash out in retaliation for the warrant, increasing violence in the region.
Observers also worry the warrant could hike tensions in Sudan's other main conflict, between north and south, straining a fragile peace deal in place since 2005. Al Bashir today made a thinly veiled warning against anyone who tries to help the ICC arrest him. "We will act as a responsible government," he said. "But we will be responsible and firm with anyone who tries to get at the stability, security in the country or whoever uses their position and presence in Sudan to violate the law, stability and security."
The international aid groups ordered out of Sudan were Oxfam, CARE, MSF-Holland, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, Action Contre la Faim, Solidarites, and CHF International.