Sudan's Bashir makes defiant Darfur tour

EL FASHER, Sudan, March 8 (Reuters) - Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir flew into Darfur on Sunday to rally supporters in defiance of growing international criticism of his closure of 16 aid groups.

Sudan expelled 13 foreign aid groups and shut down three local organisations saying they helped the International Criminal Court, which last week issued an arrest warrant for Bashir over charges he masterminded atrocities in Darfur.

Bashir arrived in El Fasher, the capital of north Darfur, on Sunday morning as government officials said the expulsion orders were "irreversible".

Foreign Ministry undersecretary Mutrif Siddig told the state Suna news agency the aid groups' cooperation with the court had been "proved by evidence".

Siddig also was quoted by the Sudanese Media Centre saying government agencies would cover the programmes left by the expelled aid groups, with help from remaining foreign and local aid groups.

Expelled aid groups, including Oxfam and Save the Children, have denied helping the court and warned the closure of their programmes will have a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people in Darfur and beyond.

U.N. agencies in Sudan on Saturday released a statement saying it would be impossible to fill the gap left by the expelled organisations which, together, made up around 40 percent of the humanitarian workforce in Darfur.

"While some 85 international NGOs (non-governmental organisations) operate in Darfur, without these organisations much of the aid operation literally comes to a halt," the statement said.

Before the expulsions, the United Nations and aid groups were running the world's largest humanitarian operation in Darfur where, international experts say, almost six years of fighting has driven more than 2.7 million from their homes.

Aid officials have warned the expulsions will hit other turbulent areas of northern Sudan, particularly in areas along the contested border with the country's semi-autonomous south.

The expulsions did not affect aid programmes in southern Sudan.

Additional reporting by Andrew Heavens in Khartoum; editing by Michael Roddy