July 14, 2008

Protest is Staged in Sudan on Coming Arrest Warrant

By Lydia Polgreen

Thousands of people took the streets of Sudan's tense capital Sunday in a carefully choreographed protest against the expected request for an arrest warrant on war crimes charges for President Omar al-Bashir by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Students and members of the governing National Congress Party were brought by bus into central Khartoum, where they waved banners denouncing the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, and the United Nations.

The Sudanese government held an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss how to respond to the expected announcement Monday of a request for an arrest warrant for Bashir, who has ruled Sudan since he took power in a military coup nearly 20 years ago.

Sudan's state-run television station broadcast a statement from the National Congress Party that the court's actions would cause "more violence and blood" in Darfur, The Associated Press reported.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, plans to ask that an arrest warrant be issued for Bashir, according to UN officials who have been briefed on his plans.

There is rising alarm around the world that charges against Bashir could jeopardize the vast aid and peacekeeping efforts in Darfur and undermine diplomatic efforts to find a political settlement to end the crisis.

After being briefed on the prosecutor's case Friday, the African Union's Peace and Security Council issued a statement expressing its "strong conviction that the search for justice should be pursued in a way that does not impede or jeopardize efforts aimed at promoting lasting peace," and "reiterated the AU's concern with the misuse of indictments against African leaders."

Andrew Natsios, a former U.S. envoy to Sudan, issued a blunt condemnation of the prosecutor's plans on the Web log Making Sense of Darfur, published by the Social Sciences Research Council.

"Without a political settlement Sudan may go the way of Somalia, pre-genocide Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo: a real potential for widespread atrocities and bloodshed as those in power seek to keep it at any cost because of the alternatives," he wrote. "This indictment may well shut off the last remaining hope for a peaceful settlement for the country."

Khartoum was tense but relatively calm Sunday despite the protests, which were tightly scripted and not violent. Aid organizations and foreign embassies urged their workers to stock up on food and water, and some evacuated workers from Darfur.

In Darfur, UN officials struggled to find ways to protect the roughly 9,000 peacekeeping troops in the region.

Originally sent there to protect civilians from the violence that has left 300,000 people dead, according to the UN, and chased 2.5 million from their homes, the troops have found themselves increasingly in the cross hairs of the rising chaos in the region.

"People are afraid," a senior peacekeeping official in Darfur said in a phone interview. "Anything can happen."

Seven people were killed last week in a brazen, military-style assault on a convoy of peacekeepers returning from a patrol to investigate reports of atrocities in Darfur. The attack was unusual in its coordination and sophistication, according to peacekeeping officials, involving heavy weapons and tactics that require serious military training. This has led some officials to suspect that militias trained by the Sudanese government were behind the ambush.

The peacekeeping force in Darfur, a joint operation of the UN and the African Union, could be a prime target of violence and government anger in the aftermath of Moreno-Ocampo's announcement. Already pressed under the strain of the deteriorating security situation in Darfur, the force could collapse, UN officials said.

"We are a consent-based organization and if consent is withdrawn you are looking at a radically different and terrifying situation for the people on the ground," said an official at the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly.


An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Khartoum.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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