Sudan, Mar 19 – A defiant Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir called on Wednesday for Darfur rebels to lay down their arms, during a visit to the conflict-ravaged region where he stands accused of war crimes.
Vowing to develop the region that has been prey to six years of conflict and decades of neglect, Bashir addressed thousands of jubilant militiamen two weeks after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest.
"We want to reunify the people of Darfur and we call on all our sons and brothers who bear arms to put them down," Bashir said on his second visit to Darfur since the warrant was issued.
"We tell them you have taken up arms to demand development and development has now started and it continues," Bashir said.
"Our response (to the ICC) is to bring electricity to Darfur, more buildings, schools, water, more hospitals. We want a reunification of the people of Darfur."
"It’s not the US or Britain who chooses the president of Sudan but the Sudanese people," Bashir thundered against two states he sees as the driving force behind his arrest warrant.
The ICC on March 4 issued a warrant for Bashir for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Darfur conflict, including murder, torture, rape and pillage.
The African Union on Wednesday chided the UN Security Council for ignoring its requests to defer the arrest warrant.
"The AU once again appeals to the Security Council to take responsibility and defer the warrant and give peace a chance in Darfur," said Elisabeth Tankeu, the interim chair of AU’s panel on Darfur.
Sudan has vowed not to cooperate with the ICC and taken steps to defy mounting Western criticism, including expelling 13 international aid agencies.
"O Bashir, we sacrifice our soul and blood," the crowd shouted in the village of Sabdo, near the South Darfur town of El-Daien.
Militiaman Ahmed el-Hassan told AFP that the rally of around 10,000 was made up of members of the pro-government popular defence forces, many on horseback and carrying lances.
"Beshir is the hero of Sudan, we will defend him to the death," a toothless old man called Mohammed told AFP.
"Darfur rebels have no control of anywhere in the region. If they come here we will fight them, they do not represent Darfur," said another militiaman.
The crowd burned an effigy of ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, who instigated Bashir’s prosecution at The Hague-based court.
Days after the warrant was issued, Bashir – who took power in a coup in 1989 – visited Darfur and warned peacekeepers and aid groups to obey Sudanese law or face expulsion.
The United Nations says the aid agency expulsions will leave 1.1 million people without food, 1.5 million without health care and more than a million without drinking water.
Many of the 300,000 people the United Nations says have died in the Darfur conflict starved or died from disease. Sudan puts the death toll at 10,000.
More than 2.7 million people have also fled their homes since ethnic minority rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government in February 2003.
Bashir has said Sudan will replace the work of the expelled agencies and warned on Monday that Khartoum wanted no foreign aid groups on the ground within a year.
Bashir’s visit to Darfur came as US President Barack Obama was to name a new special envoy to Sudan to confront what Washington sees as the "horrendous" situation in Darfur.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also voiced fresh condemnation of Bashir’s expulsion of aid groups, saying he "will be held responsible for every single death that occurs in those camps."
On Tuesday, a Nigerian peacekeeper with the joint UN-African Union force in Darfur was killed in an ambush, the 14th to die since the mission took over from a beleaguered AU force in January 2008.
AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping called the ambush a "cowardly and deliberate attack."
The force is currently at only 60 percent of its mandated strength, with just 15,000 of the 26,000 planned troops and police on the ground.