By Stephanie McCrummen and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 6, 2009
NAIROBI, March 5 -- Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, now a wanted war crimes suspect, told a cheering, flag-waving crowd of thousands in Sudan's capital Thursday that "we are not afraid of anything" as the government continued to expel foreign aid groups that provide food, water, medicine and other crucial support to more than a million displaced people in the Darfur region.
At the presidential palace in Khartoum, Bashir rallied the crowd by calling the warrant issued by the International Criminal Court an imperialist grab for the country's resources, as people yelled "Down, Down U.S.A!"
"We have refused to kneel to colonialism, that is why Sudan has been targeted," he said, according to a Reuters news service report from the capital, where Americans and other foreigners stayed indoors for the day.
On Wednesday, Bashir became the first sitting president to be indicted by the court. He was charged with directing a campaign of mass murder, rape and pillage against civilians in Darfur, the vast western region of the country where rebels took up arms against the government in 2003, citing a history of discrimination. The United States has backed the court's decision, though the Obama administration has not indicated whether it would attempt to execute the warrant.
In what appears to have been a planned response to the court's decision, the Sudanese government Wednesday ordered 10 foreign aid groups to leave the country and Thursday handed expulsion letters to three more. The groups that have been ordered out include the French and Dutch sections of Doctors Without Borders, the U.S. section of Save the Children, Oxfam, Care, the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps. Many of the organizations also work in other regions of Sudan, so the number of people affected by the expulsions exceeds one million.
Sudanese security forces began seizing computers, disks, phones and other property from the groups' compounds and froze some of their bank accounts. Several Sudanese aid workers were arrested. The government has accused some of the groups of providing evidence to the International Criminal Court, which the groups deny.
In the world of aid work in Darfur, government-orchestrated hassles are nothing new, and some observers said it is possible the expulsions are just a temporary publicity stunt to create a sense of crisis that might pressure the United States and others supporting the arrest warrant to back down.
But Thursday, Bashir and other Sudanese officials promised they would follow through on the expulsions, and some aid groups said they believe them.
A spokesman for Oxfam said the group had moved most of its workers to the Darfur regional capitals and Khartoum, as many groups have. Doctors Without Borders shut down its clinics in western and southern Darfur.
"It could be seen as political and a show, but we are not seeing it that way," an official with the group said on the condition of anonymity because of the uncertainty of the situation. "We are treating this as very serious. Other organizations are trying to appeal. I don't think that discussion applies in our case."
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Sudan to "urgently reconsider" its decision, saying it would "cause irrevocable damage to the humanitarian operations there," said his spokeswoman, Michele Montas. Ban believes the agencies are "key to maintaining a lifeline to 4.7 million Sudanese people who receive aid in Darfur."
Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, echoed that concern. "These aid groups are the difference between life and death for tens of thousands of people living on the brink of survival," she told The Washington Post. "The government should not use them as pawns. More suffering in Darfur will only further alienate Khartoum from the international community."
Human rights activists urged the U.N. Security Council to demand that Sudan back down.
"The international community, in particular the U.N. Security Council and the African Union, has but one responsible reaction to Bashir's decision: It must demand that Khartoum immediately rescind its expulsion orders for aid agencies operating in Sudan and allow them to return to full operations," said Julia Fromholz, acting director of Human Rights First's Crimes Against Humanity program. "The civilians whose lives hang in the balance require no less."
U.S. and European diplomats said they had no immediate plans to call a Security Council meeting, saying they wanted to get a clearer sense of conditions on the ground.
Lynch reported from the United Nations.