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Judicial noose tightens around Bashir

By Martin Plaut
Africa editor, BBC News

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (File pic, 2008)
Mr Bashir served in the army and rose to power in the 1990s

The unprecedented decision by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to seek charges against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity has thrown a sharp light on his part in the conflict in Darfur.

Some 300,000 people have died and more than two million fled their homes since 2003.

But Mr Bashir has always accused the international community of exaggerating the scale of the crisis.

Speaking in 2004, he said the Darfur issue was a "traditional conflict over resources... coated with claims of marginalisation".

"Strangely the Darfur crisis, according to them [the UN], has become the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. The report about the crisis occupies the best part of the influential media by those who have a hidden agenda," he added.

Accusations

However, organisations like Human Rights Watch have documented atrocities in the western Sudanese region.

[African Union] troops... are completely capable of playing their role without international intervention
Omar al-Bashir, 2006

Four years ago, Human Rights Watch described the Sudanese government as pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing said to be "strategic and well-planned".

"Khartoum has relied on the civilian administration, the Sudanese military and Janjaweed militias to implement a counter-insurgency policy that deliberately and systematically targeted civilians in violation of international law," it said.

And these allegations were renewed earlier in 2008, when the government was accused of aerial bombardment and ground attacks that drove thousands from their homes.

Human rights organisations accuse President Bashir of overseeing these atrocities - allegations that have now resulted in the current indictment.

Noose tightening

Mr Bashir is first and foremost an army man.

After joining the Sudanese armed forces in 1960, he served with the Egyptian army during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

In June 1989, he led a group of officers who overthrew the government of Sadiq al-Mahdi, appearing on TV to say that the coup was designed to save Sudan from rotten politicians.

UN/AU peacekeeper in Darfur
The joint UN/AU peacekeeping mission to Darfur was much-delayed

As chairman of a Revolutionary Command Council, he led the country, making links with radical Islamists, including Hassan al-Turabi.

The relationship did not last, though, and Mr Turabi was purged and jailed.

Critics of President Bashir say that he has ruled Sudan in the interests of those northern Sudanese who live along the River Nile.

Anyone from the south of the country, or from a peripheral area like Darfur, has had little say in the running of the country.

The uprising in Darfur has been ruthlessly repressed. And suggestions that the United Nations might send international forces to the region were strongly resisted.

Instead, Mr Bashir has insisted that only African forces be deployed to try to Darfur.

"The AU [African Union] troops, after their experience and real practice in resolving conflict in Africa, are completely capable of playing their role without international intervention," he said in 2006.

"We renew our call to the international community, as well as our Arab and African brothers, to provide the necessary financial support to these troops and to increase the participation of Arab and African troops in the mission by the required numbers, so that the AU can continue playing its role."

The United States has been at the forefront of pressing for action on Darfur. But - strange as it might seem - it has also maintained close intelligence links with the Sudanese government.

In 2005, for example, the head of Sudanese intelligence was flown in a CIA jet to Washington. And US officials have worked closely with Sudan on anti-terrorism issues.

But the judicial noose has been gradually tightening around Mr Bashir.

In June, the International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo briefed the UN Security Council on Sudan's refusal to arrest two government officials for alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Now the court has decided it will go higher - and target President Omar al-Bashir himself.

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