KHARTOUM – Sudan's president traveled to Eritrea Monday, choosing one of Africa's most politically isolated nations for his first trip abroad since an international court sought his arrest on charges of war crimes in Darfur.
Eritrean television showed live coverage of Omar al-Bashir arriving at the airport in the capital Asmara where he was greeted by his counterpart President Isaias Afwerki along with drummers and dancers. The semiofficial Sudanese Media Center confirmed al-Bashir went following an invitation from Eritrea.
Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu told the Associated Press that al-Bashir was accompanied by his heads of security and intelligence and was there to discuss regional security.
The Netherlands-based ICC charged al-Bashir on March 4 of leading a counterinsurgency against Darfur rebels that involved rapes, killings and other atrocities against civilians. His government has been accused of unleashing Arab militiamen known as janjaweed against Darfur civilians in a drive to put down a revolt by ethnic Africans in the region.
Up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million driven from their homes in the conflict since 2003, according to the U.N.
Under the charter of the ICC, member states are bound to arrest those indicted when they enter their territory. Eritrea is not a signatory, however, and has vehemently condemned the indictment, making it a kind of safe haven for el-Bashir to visit.
"It's unjustifiable and illegal and illogical and futile, the so-called ICC decision," said Ali. "We believe it's an extension and symptom of the ongoing world hegemony and domination by a few powers in this world."
The tiny Horn of Africa nation has itself come under harsh criticism from the U.S. State Department and international human rights groups for its human rights record. The U.S. government has previously debated designating Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorism because of its support for hardline Islamist insurgents in Somalia fighting a weak regime backed by the U.S. and the U.N.
Al-Bashir is also scheduled to attend the Arab League summit at the end of the month in the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar. But there have been public calls in Sudan for him to stay home for fears he might be arrested.
The 22-member Arab League has publicly stated that al-Bashir would be welcome at the March 27 summit. Only a few Arab countries are signatories to the ICC and bound by its rules.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa said last week that member nations would not act on the arrest warrant.
Al-Bashir caused an international outcry by expelling 13 international aid organizations from Darfur after the arrest warrant was issued for him. He accused the groups of spying for the tribunal and threatened to expel more organizations and even ambassadors if they overstepped their mandate.
The expulsions punch a giant hole in the safety net that has kept many Darfur civilians alive during six years of war. Without the groups, 1.1 million people will be without food, 1.5 million without health care, and more than one million without drinking water — and outbreaks of infectious disease are a greater danger, the U.N. has said.