By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005
KHARTOUM, Sudan, July 21 -- In a private meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, Sudan's president, made a pitch for lifting sanctions on his country and removing it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
But outside the room, a storm was brewing.
Bashir's secret police, manning the palace entrance, had blocked many of Rice's key aides, and reporters accompanying her, from entering the building. When the tensions exploded in full view of Rice and Bashir during a photo opportunity, an infuriated Rice demanded an apology from the government.
The first indication of trouble came when Rice found herself seated next to Bashir, without her interpreter, for more than five minutes of awkward silence. The interpreter had been blocked at the gate, along with many of Rice's aides, but was finally hustled in.
Meanwhile, the Sudanese security forces blocked U.S. news media members, including this reporter, from entering the building. They forcefully pushed the foreign journalists out of the way, permitting only Sudanese journalists to enter.
A senior adviser to Rice, Jim Wilkinson, fumed that "diplomacy 101 says don't rough your guests up" and demanded access for the American reporters.
Officials agreed to let the U.S. news media in for television footage at the end of the meeting. Ambassador Khidir Haroun Ahmed, head of the Sudanese mission in Washington, apologized, insisting, "This is not our policy."
Before letting them in, however, the Sudanese insisted the reporters understand that questions could not be directed to Bashir.
"There is a free press," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
"This is not a free press," a Sudanese official replied.
When NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell tried to ask Bashir about his alleged involvement in the violence in Sudan's Darfur region, the security forces pounced. The guards tried to drag Mitchell away, with Wilkinson shouting, "Get your hands off her!" Then they hustled all of the reporters out.
Later, Rice said she was furious over the incident.
"It makes me very angry to be sitting there with their president and have this happen," she told reporters as her plane was taking off for Darfur. "They have no right to push and shove."
An hour later, as her plane was landing, Sudan's foreign minister was on the phone, telling Rice he was sorry.