US envoy heads to Darfur

April 1, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, Apr 1 – US envoy Scott Gration heads for Sudan on Wednesday as President Barack Obama turns up the heat on his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir to allow aid groups back into war-torn Darfur.

The Sudan envoy’s mission raised hopes among a leading activist that the new administration will also get countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, China, South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda to pressure Bashir to reverse course.

Gordon Duguid, a State Department spokesman, said Gration will visit Khartoum, Darfur, the main southern city of Juba and the flashpoint oil town of Abyei before "returning to Khartoum for meetings with government officials."

State Department officials said Gration’s plane was to have taken off from Washington at 6pm on Tuesday and it was due on Wednesday in Khartoum.

The US government fears not only another humanitarian disaster in Darfur, a western region where Sudanese military actions have led to war crimes charges against Bashir, but also the collapse of a 2005 North-South peace accord.

Fighting in Abyei last year had threatened a return to Sudan’s two-decade civil war – the longest in Africa – which only ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.

However, Duguid acknowledged the immediate concern was the fate of the people of Darfur.

"He will meet with a wide range of interlocutors, particularly those who are empowered to make policy decisions that can try and put Sudan on the path to a peace," Duguid told reporters without saying whom Gration will meet.

"We have to work on a mechanism to get the NGOs (non-government organizations) back in country, to get the aid flowing again without disruption," Duguid said, referring to the groups expelled from Darfur.

Obama, speaking after meeting with his special envoy on Monday, said he hopes to find a way for humanitarian workers to resume their work in Darfur.

"We have to figure out a mechanism to get those NGOs back in place, to reverse that decision, or to find some mechanism whereby we avert a enormous humanitarian crisis," Obama said.

Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition who was at Obama’s meeting on Monday with Gration and congressmen, said he felt reassured by the president’s commitment to Darfur.

"We think it’s an important step that he has been appointed and that it is someone who has this close relationship with the president and the confidence of the president," Fowler told AFP.

He hoped that the Obama administration – which boasts a multilateral approach to foreign policy – will recruit the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda to get Bashir to change course.

"The diplomatic pressure would really be good. I think so far all of the public messaging from those countries has been pretty supportive of Khartoum," Fowler said.

He added that China, which has key oil interests in Sudan, could help.

"They’ve provided a lot of diplomatic support to Khartoum. If they wanted to, they could make a contribution to the solution," he said.

Gration, Fowler added, had told the meeting at the White House that he personally knew China’s special envoy to Darfur, Liu Guijin, from the time when both worked in Nairobi several years ago.

"He acknowledged the importance of China and he mentioned just coincidentally that he already has this relationship with the special envoy," said the Save Darfur executive.

US officials said Gration’s mission will contribute to the Obama administration’s review of policy toward Sudan, but also acknowledged privately they were not sure how much access he would get in Sudan.

Gration, a former air force general, was appointed special envoy for Sudan earlier this month as Washington increased pressure on Bashir to reverse his expulsion of the aid groups from Darfur.

The expulsion came days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Bashir for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out during the six-year armed conflict in Darfur.


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