It took diplomacy, good will, a 45-minute meeting with the President of Sudan, and a four-hour administrative wait in El Fasher, a remote regional capital, to win the release of an award-winning American journalist last weekend from a prison in Darfur, Western Sudan. This was not the first time Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico has sought the help of Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. ”What helped was that we knew each other. I had been in Sudan ten years ago and had rescued three Red Cross workers, and Bashir, the President helped.”
Chicago Tribune reporter Paul Salopek was jailed last month while working in Darfur on a special assignment for National Geographic magazine. Governor Richardson, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton Administration, told English to Africa reporter Howard Lesser that he intervened on Salopek’s behalf because the reporter and his wife Linda have been long-time residents of his state. “He’s a distinguished reporter. He was reporting on the humanitarian situation in the Sahel. He did admit to me that he crossed the country illegally without a visa, with his two assistants and that he regretted that.”
In Khartoum, Richardson said, he also sought President Bashir’s views on a U.N. Security Council resolution to send troops to reinforce a beleaguered African Union contingent trying to curb the militia violence that has caused the deaths of some 200-thousand Darfur civilians and driven another two million people from their homes. “Bashir had basically said that he wanted it to be Sudanese troops or African troops. I said, well what if you had a U.N. force that involved African troops primarily, and you had input on how it was put together? And he said, ‘Well, I’m not sure’.”
Richardson said that the Sudanese leader also raised the issue of U.S. detention of seven Sudanese prisoners being held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.