EL FASHER, Sudan – Sudan's president threatened to kick out more aid groups and expel diplomats and peacekeepers on Sunday during his first trip to the beleaguered Darfur region after an international court indicted him on war crimes.
Sudan has already expelled 13 of the largest aid groups operating in Darfur as part of its defiant response to the International Criminal Court's decision last week to issue an arrest warrant against President Omar al-Bashir. Sudan has accused them of cooperating with the Netherlands-based ICC.
Al-Bashir was greeted by thousands of cheering supporters riding camels and horses in the North Darfur capital of El Fasher on Sunday. During a rally in an open field, al-Bashir warned that others could be told to leave if Sudan determines they were involved with the ICC case.
"Those who respect themselves, we will respect them. Don't interfere in something that doesn't concern you," al-Bashir said. "Don't do anything that would harm the country's security and stability."
"Whoever deviates, we will kick them out," he said, referring to aid groups, diplomatic missions and peacekeeping forces.
The ICC accuses al-Bashir of leading a counterinsurgency against Darfur rebels that involved rapes, killings and other atrocities against civilians. Al-Bashir rejects the charges and refuses to deal with the ICC. Arab and African countries are pressing the U.N. Security Council to defer any prosecution for at least a year, hoping to defuse the crisis.
Up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million driven from their homes in the Darfur conflict since 2003, according to the U.N. A joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission, currently around 15,000 strong, is deployed in Darfur, but its forces remain under-equipped and it has been attacked by warring factions.
The crowd in El Fasher waved pictures of al-Bashir as well as posters of the ICC prosecutor with an X drawn over his face.
"Tell them all, the ICC prosecutor, the members of the court and every one who supports this court that they are under my shoe," he said. In the Muslim world, stepping on somebody or striking them with shoes is considered an insult.
The United Nations and humanitarian workers say Sudan's order to expel the 13 aid groups, including Oxfam GB and CARE International, punches a giant hole in the safety net that has kept many Darfur civilians alive during six years of war in the vast, arid region of western Sudan.
Without the groups, 1.1 million people will be without food, 1.5 million without health care, and more than 1 million without drinking water, the U.N. has said.