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Will warrant tip Sudan into abyss?

By Amber Henshaw
BBC News Sudan correspondent

The International Criminal Court judges' decision to issue an arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir has been long awaited by the government in Khartoum.

President Omar al-Bashir
President Omar al-Bashir has always denied backing Darfur militias

After months of deliberation, the pre-trial chamber judges finally decided to issue the warrant for war crimes and crimes against humanity for alleged atrocities committed in the Darfur region of Sudan.

The question now is what will happen next?

The stakes could not be higher.

On the one hand supporters of the global court will be hoping that the arrest warrant will be enough to persuade Sudan's politicians to hand the country's leader over.

Over the last few months rumours that a coup is on the cards have been circulating around Khartoum.

But insiders say that senior members of the National Congress Party have decided to stick with President Bashir - at least for the time being.

We are inclined to get and catch Bashir if possible and that by all means
Rebel official Tahir el-Faki

Sources say senior officials were worried they could be next on the list of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

But if President Bashir does stay in power, many fear what the future could bring.

Fighting has intensified over the past few weeks in the Darfur region between the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (Jem) and the government.

Last month there was a breakthrough between Jem and Sudan's government who signed an agreement which could pave the way for more substantial peace talks.

However, many are now concerned this will be jeopardised as Jem has said promised to work with the ICC.

"We made it very clear that we are going to co-operate with the International Criminal Court and as such we are inclined to get and catch Bashir if possible - and that by all means by collaborating or acting with the other political parties or on our own," senior Jem official Tahir el-Faki said before the deal.

Map

"At the same time we are leaving some ways for us to manoeuvre for a military approach if the need comes."

Since the signing of the accord some senior Jem officials have started to distance themselves from this kind of rhetoric.

But some analysts believe that the situation in Darfur, where more than two million people are already displaced, could still deteriorate.

Darfur is not the only problem that the arrest warrant could exacerbate.

So much of the world's attention is focused on the conflict, that many forget the true horror of Sudan's two-decade civil war.

'Turning-point'

The conflict between the north and south, which are now in a shaky coalition government, devastated South Sudan, leaving two million dead and even more displaced.

There is a fear among some analysts that the arrest warrant for President Bashir could possibly derail the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 and plunge South Sudan back into bloody conflict.

File pic of Sudanese Janjaweed fighter
Members of the Janjaweed are accused of atrocities in Darfur

Sudan expert Alex de Waal said the warrant was coming at a critical moment for Africa's largest country.

"In less than two years time, the people of South Sudan are expected to vote in a referendum on self-determination which has the potential, the likelihood indeed, of leading to the division of the country into two," he said.

"And the first democratic elections in more than 20 years are expected this year.

"So it is already a pivotal turning-point in Sudan and there's a huge amount of political business that needs to be transacted if these two key events are to go ahead smoothly and without causing disruption and even a new war."

Key to what happens next could be the reaction of the main party in the south, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

If President Bashir becomes politically isolated, there is little chance that elections scheduled for 2009 will go ahead in a free and fair fashion.

Western evacuation plans

Sudan is clearly furious about the case against its president.

It blames the international community and claims the case is a Western conspiracy to bring about regime change.

File pic of Sudan's humanitarian affairs minister Ahmed Haroun, wanted by the ICC
The ICC issued a warrant for Ahmed Haroun in 2007
There is a concern that the warrant could have an impact on the United Nations and aid workers based in Sudan.

The country's acting ambassador in London, Mohamed Zaroug, warned that it may change the government's relationship with humanitarian agencies.

"We are allowing a huge number of international NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and they are working in Sudan," he said.

"So maybe our co-operation with the international community should have a halt or a cease because this is an aggression to the Sudanese sovereignty and we have to react and to defend our country."

Senior government officials have warned that foreigners could be targeted by extremists in the wake of an arrest warrant for the country's president.

Western embassies have emergency evacuation plans in place and families have been stockpiling food.

Ambassador Zaroug said having a sitting head of state who is wanted as a war criminal could have a major impact on diplomatic relations.

Western diplomats have already faced dilemmas about being in the same room as Sudanese Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ahmed Haroun, who is wanted for war crimes in Darfur.

Ambassador Zaroug said: "I think this is not only a dilemma for Sudan but a dilemma for the international community as well because Sudan is the biggest country in Africa because of its geographical position.

"So it is up to the international community to weigh up the damage made by [ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo's] application and the arrest warrant."

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