- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

KHARTOUM, SUDAN (AP) - Sudan’s president said Monday he wants all international aid groups out of the country within a year, insisting they can drop off supplies “at airports or seaports” and let Sudanese organizations take care of it.

Government officials later tried to downplay the president’s comments, calling his directive a “process” and stressing that U.N. agencies operating in Sudan would not be affected.

President Omar al-Bashir has already expelled 13 large foreign aid agencies, most of them operating in Darfur, accusing them of spying for an international court that issued an arrest warrant against him on March 4 for war crimes in the western Sudanese region.

He also shut down three local aid groups, including one of the largest operating in Darfur. The United Nations said those expulsions would leave millions at risk of a humanitarian crisis.

“We directed the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs to Sudanize voluntary work,” al-Bashir told a rally of security forces as thousands shouted their support for the president and waved their guns in the air.

“Within a year, we don’t want to see any foreign aid group dealing with a Sudanese citizen,” al-Bashir said. “If they want to bring relief, let them drop it at airports or seaports. Let the national organizations deal with our citizens.”

But Sudan’s humanitarian minister later played down al-Bashir’s remarks. When asked if his comments meant all international aid groups would be expelled from Darfur within a year, he said: “Not necessarily.”

State Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Ahmed Haroun told The Associated Press that ministers will draw a plan to work out a transition. But it will not apply to U.N. agencies, said Haroun, who is also wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Sudan refuses to hand him over.

In Washington, the State Department said it was reviewing the latest threat and repeated its demands for Khartoum to reverse its earlier decision to expel relief organizations from Darfur.

“Any responsibility for the humanitarian suffering that flows out of this decision should fall squarely on the shoulders of the Sudanese,” said spokesman Robert Wood.

U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said he was seeking urgent clarification of al-Bashir’s announcement. He pointed out that the vast majority of relief workers in Darfur were already Sudanese.

“Of course, we’re happy for Sudan to take on a larger role looking after these people, but it needs to be done in a practical way and it’s not clear that that would be possible on the basis of what president Bashir has said at the moment,” Holmes told reporters in New York.

He said foreign aid organizations would not hand over their goods to the Sudanese government because they would want to monitor how they were distributed.

Joel Charny, vice president of the Washington-based advocacy group Refugees International, said al-Bashir was “playing politics” with the new threat.

“If you really push and expel all agencies a year from now, the consequences will be so catastrophic to the point of making Sudan virtually ungovernable,” he said.

The Netherlands-based ICC accuses al-Bashir of orchestrating atrocities against civilians in Darfur, where his Arab-led government has been battling ethnic African rebels since 2003. Up to 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million have been driven from their homes.

Sudan denies the charges and says the figures are exaggerated.

The government had warned that issuing the warrant could lead to spontaneous revenge attacks by enraged Sudanese, though it pledged to defend aid workers and diplomats in the country.

Sudanese officials said three foreign aid workers and a Sudanese man kidnapped for three days in Darfur last week were taken by a group in revenge for the court’s decision.

At Monday’s rally, al-Bashir again railed against foreign aid groups, which he accuses of providing the court with false testimony against him and his government and of profiting from the Darfur conflict.

Sudan, he said, must be cleared of “spies and agents” who “trade” in the Darfur crisis and warned remaining aid groups to respect Sudan’s sovereignty or “pay the price.”

Al-Bashir said his government is ready to fill the gap. Late Sunday, he attended a fundraising conference by private businesses and civil groups in Sudan that raised some $115 million in pledges for Darfur aid.

The price tag for the U.N.’s current activities there, described as the largest aid operation in the world, exceeds $1 billion.

___

Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations in New York.

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