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Analyst Says Racism, Xenophobia May Have Influenced Police Action Against Sudanese Protesters

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the fatal confrontation in Cairo between Egyptian police and Sudanese refugees is a terrible and unjustifiable tragedy. In a statement released Friday, Mr. Annan said he profoundly regrets the situation was not resolved peacefully.

Earlier Friday, at least 20 Sudanese refugees were killed when thousands of riot police surrounded the camp and used water cannon on the refugees. Egypt's interior ministry says the deaths were caused by a stampede, but reporters on the scene said police beat the refugees -- including women and children -- with sticks and truncheons.

UN officials say up to 25 hundred Sudanese migrants have been demonstrating in Cairo's Mostafa Mahmoud park since September 29th, demanding resettlement in another country.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the Bush administration was "saddened" by the incident, and US officials were in touch with Egyptian authorities.

Gamal Nkrumah is the foreign desk editor of the Cairo-based newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly. He was at the camp Thursday evening before the police attacks. He told English to Africa reporter William Eagle that there was tension there as rumors circulated about an impending police attack. However, he said many people discounted the warnings as just one of many false alarms received by the asylum seekers since the establishment of the camp in the mainly upper class neighborhood.

Mr. Nkrumah says at the beginning of their protest in September, the refugees enjoyed a measure of support from the populace – with some people bringing food and clothing. But, he says, neighbors eventually complained to the police about drinking and reported rowdiness in the camp. He also says there may be an element of racism behind the treatment of the asylum seekers and refugees -- especially those from southern Sudan.

“They stood out,” he says, “not just because they’re black…or Christian..[but] because many of them do not have a very good command of Arabic.”

Moreover, he says a number of refugees are living in slums on the outskirts of Cairo where Mr. Nkrumah says the asylum seekers have to share meager resources with their poor Egyptian neighbors. He says there is a lot of competition for jobs and living space, and generally relations between the two groups have deteriorated: “They were basically targeted for much racist xenophobia, and people thought they were coming to take over their jobs -- and joblessness is very high in Egypt.”

Gamal Nkrumah says civil society demonstrated in support of the Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers on Saturday. But he says the government has not yet commented on Friday’s violence, and many people remain ambivalent about the incident: “The public has been to say the least unsympathetic and in many cases hostile: some of them were cheering as the police were raiding the camp.”

Mr. Nkrumah says many foreign and Egyptian journalists were away for New Years weekend. He says he wonders whether the police action was not planned to coincide with the holiday.