, DOHA Mar 30 – Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir defied an international arrest warrant by travelling to Doha on Sunday for an Arab summit, where the decision of Egypt’s leader to stay away dimmed unity hopes.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, who has also flown in to the Qatari capital, will still attend the summit which opens on Monday despite the presence of Bashir, a UN official said.
"Sudan is a member of the United Nations while the International Criminal Court is an independent judicial body, which does not prevent the United Nations from dealing with Sudan," the official told AFP requesting anonymity.
Speculation had been rife in Doha that Bashir could stay away from the summit to avoid embarrassing Qatar, although the Gulf state is not bound by the rules of the ICC which indicted the president.
Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani had reiterated on Saturday that Bashir was welcome in Doha which, like all Arab states except Jordan, is not a signatory of the Rome treaty setting up the ICC.
Doha became Bashir’s fourth trip abroad since the ICC issued the warrant on March 4 for alleged war crimes in the conflict-battered Darfur region of western Sudan.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was the first head of state from the 22-member Arab League to land in the Qatari capital for the two-day annual summit.
It remains uncertain how many Arab leaders will attend, but Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak is to shun the gathering.
The Doha meeting had been expected to see Arab League states seeking to close ranks split largely over how to respond to Israel’s 22-day onslaught on Hamas-ruled Gaza, and amid the growing influence of Shiite Iran in the region.
Qatar’s premier urged foreign ministers who met ahead of the summit to strive for a unified front, beyond the show of solidarity with Sudan. "We have to live up to our responsibilities and work towards closing ranks," he said.
But he refrained from criticising Mubarak’s decision not to take part, even as Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit also stayed away from the preparatory meetings on Saturday.
"We would have liked him (Mubarak) to attend, but the decision is his, and we do respect his decision," Sheikh Hamad said.
Egypt, the largest Arab country in terms of population and a major regional powerhouse, will instead be represented by its legal and parliamentary affairs minister, Mufid Shehab.
Diplomatic sources in Cairo said Mubarak was accusing Doha of taking an anti-Egyptian stand during the Gaza war.
King Abdullah of oil kingpin Saudi Arabia met the presidents of Egypt and Syria on March 11 to promote reconciliation, two months after another ice-breaking mini-summit in Kuwait.
The two meetings allowed Western-backed Egypt and Saudi Arabia to improve contacts with Syria – a major Arab ally of Iran – which had worsened during the war on Gaza.
Cairo and Riyadh are staunch supporters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, while Damascus and Doha back the Islamist movement Hamas, which routed Abbas’s Fatah loyalists from Gaza in deadly factional fighting in June 2007.
Arab foreign ministers on Saturday approved a draft declaration calling for the annulment of the ICC measures against Bashir and urging all Arab states to reject the arrest warrant.
The draft to be presented to the leaders also warns Israel that the Arab peace initiative, first unveiled in 2002, is not an open-ended offer.
The Saudi-inspired initiative offers the Jewish state a full normalisation of ties in return for its withdrawal from Arab territories occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
In Addis Ababa, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi lambasted the ICC on Sunday as representing a "new form of world terrorism" that wanted to recolonise developing countries.
"It is not fair that a head of state should be arrested," he said. "If we allow such a thing… we should also try those who killed hundreds and millions of children in Iraq and in Gaza."
Gaddafi later travelled from the African Union headquarters to Doha for the Arab summit.