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Standoff over Sudan president could drag on

State radio has been broadcasting a message each morning since Sudan's president became a wanted man: "Long live Sudan, free and defiant."

world Updated: Mar 12, 2009 13:33 IST

State radio has been broadcasting a message each morning since Sudan's president became a wanted man: "Long live Sudan, free and defiant."

President Omar al-Bashir's response to his indictment last week by the International Criminal Court has certainly been defiant: the immediate expulsion of nearly half the aid workers providing food, medicine and shelter to millions of victims of the 6-year-old war in the Darfur region.

Many observers fear the small hopes for compromise have grown even smaller. The first international attempt to prosecute a sitting head of state is likely to turn into a long standoff, with the people of Darfur suffering the most.

The top powers at the United Nations are divided on how to proceed, making tough action like sanctions against Sudan or a no-fly zone over Darfur difficult. There are few avenues for arresting al-Bashir, and none are likely in the short term. He could come under pressure at home to turn himself in, but at the moment he has firm control here. He could be arrested on a trip abroad but he won't be going anywhere with a government inclined to do that _ he plans to attend an Arab summit in Qatar later this month in a show that he won't be touched.

The prosecutor at the Netherlands-based war crimes court has suggested forcing down al-Bashir's plane if he travels abroad, but Western governments are likely to be deterred by the sure backlash from Arab countries to any such move.

Still, Sudan faces increased isolation by the West, and its harsh response on aid workers could alienate its allies. Arab and African countries are so far supporting al-Bashir, but there are signs of frustration with his tough line. Editorials in Egypt's government press have compared him to Iraq's Saddam Hussein in his final days in power _ an implicit warning to Sudan's leader to show flexibility.

For now, though, Sudan's allies on the UN Security Council _ Russia and China _ oppose any sanctions against Sudan. Last week, China, which is a top trading partner with Sudan, teamed with Libya to block a council statement condemning Sudan's expulsion of aid workers.

The International Criminal Court's arrest warrant on March 4 accuses al-Bashir of orchestrating atrocities against civilians in Darfur, where his Arab-led government has been battling ethnic African rebels since 2003. Up to 300,000 people have been killed, and 2.7 million have been driven from their homes.

Most of those who have fled the fighting rely on UN agencies and international aid groups for their survival. The expulsion of the 13 biggest aid operations has raised fears of a humanitarian disaster _ and al-Bashir has threatened more could be thrown out, along with foreign missions and UN-African Union peacekeepers in Darfur.

In a sign of how things could get worse in Darfur, the vast, arid territory of western Sudan, two more people died of meningitis this week in the Kalma refugee camp, a resident and a doctor said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution.

Four people have died from the outbreak in the camp already, and the aid group Doctors Without Borders had to call off a planned immunization campaign when it was expelled.

Anger over the expulsions could hurt efforts for a compromise. Arab and African countries, along with China, want the Security Council to freeze the case against al-Bashir for a year, to ease the pressure and open the way to find a resolution of the core problem _ Darfur.

The United States and Europe oppose any suspension. Al-Bashir, meanwhile, says he does not want a freezing of the case, but its complete cancellation. "Whoever wants us, don't go the Security Council or the ICC. Whoever wants us, come here directly," he proclaimed at one of the many rallies he has held since the warrant was issued.

Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert at the New York-based Social Science Research Council, said Khartoum is not "looking for a compromise right now."

"They are calling the bluff ... Now that the international community fired their big shot, what else can they do? Add more charges?" he said.

In a country with a long history of coups and war, al-Bashir's priority is to secure the domestic front, garnering support from rivals and reluctant backers with a mix of political patronage and a security crackdown. He has hinted he will go ahead with elections later this year, an apparent attempt to boost his legitimacy. Al-Bashir's regime is a mix of Islamic fundamentalists and military generals, united mainly by the president. All the elements feel threatened by the charges levied against al-Bashir, so they are rallying behind him.

This week, al-Bashir also freed his top domestic rival, Hassan Turabi, who had been jailed for seven weeks after urging the president to surrender to the court. The move was seen as an attempt to pacify Turabi's supporters and win his help in boosting peace efforts in Darfur.

Nabil Adeeb, a Sudanese human rights lawyer, said the government is missing an opportunity with its defiance.

"There is only one approach that can solve the situation. We don't seem to be taking it," he said. "The (government) is playing into the hands of whoever doesn't want to suspend the arrest warrant ... what we really need is to find friends not enemies."

First Published: Mar 12, 2009 13:28 IST