March 23, 2009 / 2:44 PM / 9 years ago

Sudan's Bashir in Eritrea despite ICC warrant

* Bashir on first foreign visit since indictment

* Trip details kept secret in Sudan

* Eritrean govt unconcerned by ICC arrest warrant

(Adds details, background)

By Andrew Heavens

KHARTOUM, March 23 (Reuters) - Sudan’s president visited Eritrea on Monday on his first foreign visit since he was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, Eritrea’s government said.

President Omar Hassan al-Bashir risks arrest when he leaves Sudan after The Hague-based court issued a warrant for him this month on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"Yes, he is here," Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed told Reuters by telephone. "He is meeting with President Isaias (Afwerki), and they are discussing bilateral relations. Why should we worry about the ICC issue?"

On Sunday, Sudanese state media said local Islamic scholars had advised the president not to travel to an Arab summit in Qatar at the end of March.

"This looks like a symbolic act — to show he can do it. It is not that significant in itself," said Fouad Hikmat, an analyst for the Nairobi-based International Crisis Group.

"He is just crossing one of his country’s own borders, visiting a neighbour who doesn’t really have dealings with the international community," he said.

"The real question is whether he will be able to cross international air space to visit Qatar."

The trip was kept firmly under wraps in Sudan. State media, which normally covers the president’s every move, did not mention it throughout the morning and early afternoon.

Mutrif Siddig, under-secretary at the Sudanese foreign ministry, said Bashir had accepted an invitation from Eritrea’s government and would be returning to Sudan later on Monday.

"If we felt there was a risk we would not have allowed him to travel. But we felt that he was safe," Siddig said.

"Whenever this situation comes up again (travel abroad), we will evaluate the situation on a case by case basis."



CALLS ON SECURITY COUNCIL

The Arab League and African Union, backed by China and Russia, have called on the U.N. Security Council to use its power to suspend the ICC indictment of Bashir.

The United States, Britain and France have said they see no point in halting his prosecution.

International experts say at least 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2.7 million driven from their homes in almost six years of fighting in Darfur, a mainly desert region in western Sudan. Khartoum says 10,000 people have died.

Asmara and Khartoum have strengthened relations in recent years after breaking ties in the 1990s over Sudan’s support of Islamist guerrillas in western Eritrea — an area, explorers say, is rich in gold and other metals.

The neighbours have accused each other over many years of supporting insurgents on each other’s territory, but have developed warmer ties since Eritrea brokered a peace deal between Khartoum and eastern Sudanese rebels in 2006.

Eritrea also wants to shore up its border with Sudan — a vital conduit for trade goods — in case it and regional rival Ethiopia return to war, analysts say.

Eritrea has also been heavily involved in Darfur, and has been accused of arming rebels there as well as hosting some of the rebel groups in its capital, Asmara.

The Darfur conflict flared when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government, demanding better representation and accusing it of neglecting the development of the region. (Reporting by Jack Kimball and Andrew Heavens in Khartoum; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura)




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