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Bashir lashes out at the West

KHARTOUM Mar 5 – A defiant Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Thursday dismissed an international arrest warrant against him for war crimes as thousands of his supporters joined a mass rally in Khartoum.

"The true criminals are the leaders of the United States and Europe," Bashir told the crowds.

The rally is the latest show of popular support for Bashir, who is accused by the International Criminal Court of masterminding a campaign of extermination, rape and pillage during the six-year conflict in Darfur.

With the international community deeply divided over the warrant, fears of insecurity and a worsening humanitarian crisis were mounting in Darfur after Sudan reacted to the warrant by expelling foreign aid groups.

Bashir, 65, on Wednesday became the first sitting president to be issued with an ICC arrest warrant, facing five counts of crimes against humanity and two of war crimes.

More than 5,000 people joined the rally in Khartoum’s Martyrs Square shouting support for Sudan’s veteran leader and denouncing ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo who first called for the warrant in July.

Khartoum has vowed not to cooperate with court and a string of African and Arab states along with Sudan’s key ally China have called for the warrant to be suspended.

The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died since conflict broke out in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2003, when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated regime for a greater share of resources and power.

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Many Sudanese fear the warrant against Bashir – who has repeatedly dismissed any international action against him as a Western plot – could plunge Africa’s largest country into further chaos.

On Wednesday, Sudan ordered the expulsion of 10 international aid agencies which provide essential aid to the estimated 2.7 million people made homeless by the war in Darfur in the world’s largest humanitarian operation.

Security was also beefed up around foreign embassies in Khartoum amid fears of reprisals and diplomats have also urged expatriates to avoid public places and stock up on essential supplies.

Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha confirmed that several relief groups had been expelled for "breaking the law of the country".

"Ten NGOs will be expelled," the head of an aid group working in Darfur told AFP. "They told us to leave the country within 24 hours."

The action – which affects such major organisations as Oxfam and Medicins Sans Frontieres – drew a swift response from UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

"He notes that this represents a serious setback to lifesaving operations in Darfur, and urges the government of Sudan to act urgently to restore these NGOs to their full operational status," his spokeswoman Michele Montas said.

The Sudanese army on Wednesday broadcast a stark warning on state radio against anyone trying to exploit the court’s decision.

"The armed forces will firmly deal with whoever cooperates with the so-called International Criminal Court , and uses it as a platform for political blackmail and for destabilising the security and stability of the country," spokesman Osman al-Aghbash said.

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The situation raised concern in the United States.

"We would urge restraint on the part of all parties including the government of Sudan," said President Barack Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs. "Further violence against civilian Sudanese or foreign interests is to be avoided and won’t be tolerated."

China, which sits alongside the United States on the UN Security Council, called for the warrant to be suspended, warning an arrest warrant issued for him could jeopardise peace efforts.

Similar fears have been voiced by the African Union, which was holding an emergency meeting on Thursday over the arrest warrant.

The Justice and Equality Movement, the most active Darfur rebel group which last month sign a deal with Khartoum to pave the way for broader peace talks, said it would not longer negotiate and that it was time to "get rid of Bashir".

Taha warned the warrant could embolden the rebels to attack.

"The decision of the ICC gives a negative message to the Darfur rebels that the government is under pressure so that they continue in their military operations," he said on Wednesday.

Security forces are reported to have beefed up their visible presence in Darfur, where the Sudanese military and air force "conducted a ground and aerial show of force" on Wednesday, according to the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission.

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