March 23, 2009 / 10:32 AM / 10 years ago

Sudan's Bashir visits Eritrea despite ICC warrant

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s president briefly visited Eritrea on Monday on his first foreign trip since he was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur.

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir addresses a rally in Khartoum after rebels attacked the capital, May 14, 2008. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdalla

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir risks arrest when he leaves Sudan after The Hague-based court issued a warrant for him this month on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Bashir met Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki before returning on the same day to Sudan.

Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed told Reuters the leaders had discussed relations between the countries, and that Eritrea was unconcerned by the arrest warrant for Bashir.

“Why should we worry about the ICC issue?” he said.

On Sunday, Sudanese state media said local Islamic scholars had advised the president not to travel to an Arab summit in Qatar at the end of March.

“This looks like a symbolic act — to show he can do it. It is not that significant in itself,” said Fouad Hikmat, an analyst for the Nairobi-based International Crisis Group.

“He is just crossing one of his country’s own borders, visiting a neighbour who doesn’t really have dealings with the international community,” he said.

“The real question is whether he will be able to cross international air space to visit Qatar.”

The trip was kept firmly under wraps in Sudan. State media, which normally covers the president’s every move, did not mention it throughout the morning and early afternoon.

Mutrif Siddig, under-secretary at the Sudanese foreign ministry, said Bashir had accepted an invitation from Eritrea’s government to visit the country.

“If we felt there was a risk we would not have allowed him to travel. But we felt that he was safe,” Siddig said.

“Whenever this situation comes up again (travel abroad), we will evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.”

FURTHER TRIPS

Presidential assistant Nafie Ali Nafie told reporters gathered at Khartoum’s airport for Bashir’s return that the president would visit other African countries, but did not give details.

The Arab League and African Union, backed by China and Russia, have called on the U.N. Security Council to use its power to suspend the ICC indictment of Bashir.

The United States, Britain and France have said they see no point in halting his prosecution.

International experts say at least 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2.7 million driven from their homes in almost six years of fighting in Darfur, a mainly desert region in western Sudan. Khartoum says 10,000 people have died.

Asmara and Khartoum have strengthened relations in recent years after breaking ties in the 1990s over Sudan’s support of Islamist guerrillas in western Eritrea — an area, explorers say, rich in gold and other metals.

The neighbours have accused each other over many years of supporting insurgents on each other’s territory, but have developed warmer ties since Eritrea brokered a peace deal between Khartoum and eastern Sudanese rebels in 2006.

Eritrea also wants to shore up its border with Sudan — a vital conduit for trade goods — in case it and regional rival Ethiopia return to war, analysts say.

Eritrea has been heavily involved in Darfur, and has been accused of arming rebels there as well as hosting some of the rebel groups in its capital, Asmara.

The Darfur conflict flared when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government, demanding better representation and accusing it of neglecting the development of the region.

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