Senator to make rare Darfur visit

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, will lead a delegation to Sudan’s Darfur region, U.S. officials said on Monday, in a possible sign of a growing willingness to engage with Khartoum.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) speaks at a news conference to discuss the role of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the global economic crisis on Capitol Hill in Washington March 18, 2009. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

“This is significant,” a U.S. diplomatic source told Reuters. “It is the first Congressional delegation to Sudan we have had since 2007. Like the U.S. envoy’s current visit, it is a new tack.”

The new U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, who is currently touring the country, made an unusually positive statement on his arrival in Khartoum last week, telling reporters he was looking for friendship and cooperation from the Sudanese government.

Gration said he had arrived “with my hands open,” echoing a phrase used by President Barack Obama during his inauguration that was widely seen as an offer of greater engagement with the Islamic world.

U.S. officials said the appointment of Gration marked an attempt to find new ways to deal with the Sudanese government. Gration, a retired Air Force general who grew up in Africa, is a close ally of Obama’s and reports directly to the president, they added.

The U.S. diplomatic source said Kerry, a Democrat, would lead a Congressional delegation to Darfur, and would meet senior Sudanese officials in Khartoum in the middle of next week.

The state-run Sudanese Media Center said the U.S. Congressional delegation would visit Sudan for three days next week.

Sudan traditionally had a stormy relationship with the United States. President Bill Clinton imposed wide-ranging sanctions on the country, accusing it of supporting terrorism.

Relations have been strained further by the conflict in Darfur, which both Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush have called genocide.

Gration sounded one note of criticism over the weekend, saying he was concerned Darfur was on the brink of a deeper humanitarian crisis following a decision by the Sudanese government to expel foreign aid groups

Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir expelled 13 foreign aid groups and shut down three local organizations last month, accusing them of helping the International Criminal Court build up a war crimes case against him.

The Hague-based court has issued an arrest warrant for Bashir, accusing him of masterminding war crimes in Darfur.

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 ethnic and politically driven fighting in Darfur. Khartoum says 10,000 people have died.

Editing by Giles Elgood