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Demonstrators in Khartoum Protest Arrest Warrant for Sudan President


Thousands protested in the Sudanese capital Khartoum after the announcement that the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for the country's president. Security has been beefed up in Khartoum and in Darfur as the country waits to see whether any repercussions will follow court's decision.

After months of waiting, Sudanese have received the news that their president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity and murder. Now the population waits to see how the government will react.

On Wednesday, traffic was clogged in Khartoum as thousands gathered to protest the approval of the warrant, which did not include charges of genocide, which are the most difficult to prove. But the government frequently organizes demonstrations and popular sentiment in the capital can be harder to gauge. Further rallies were planned for later in the week, and President Bashir is expected to visit the Darfur region at the weekend.

Security was increased in the capital Khartoum, especially around diplomatic missions, and foreign workers were advised to stay indoors and to prepare for the possibility of unrest. Sudanese officials have said they will protect diplomatic and U.N. representatives, but that they may not be able to control popular protests.

Presidential advisor Mustafa Osman Ismail described the warrant, as "neo-colonialism" and security officials warned of the consequences of cooperating with the ICC investigation. On Tuesday, President Bashir said any warrant would be worthless, and that the court could "eat" the document. He was speaking at the inauguration of a large dam, before a crowd that burned and stamped on images of the ICC's chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

Security was also increased in the main towns in Darfur. Government plans flew overhead in a show of force. The U.N. peacekeeping mission, UNAMID, said it was carrying out regular activities. The head of U.N. peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, told the Security Council this week that the mission was prepared for unrest, but was not expecting any reprisals.

"So far we don't fear that the U.N. mission will be targeted by any group and there is no plan to scale down our mission, we are there," said Le Roy. "But it's normal that we are prepared."

Darfur's largest rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement, has voiced enthusiastic support for President Bashir to be turned over to the ICC, and has vowed to counter any renewed military attacks by the government.

Leaders of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, former rebels who led a two-decade civil war against the government in the north before a 2005 peace agreement, and who now run the semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan have also affirmed their support for the president. While President Bashir is highly unpopular in the south, many of the former rebels see support for the president as the best chance to keep the peace deal alive, as many other Northern political factions have opposed the agreement.

SPLM Secretary-General Pagan Amum spoke to reporters in the southern capital Juba on Tuesday.

"We believe that if an indictment is issued, that should not be allowed to affect the process of building peace and the process of transition to democracy," he said. "We are happy that the president himself last week made a statement that if there is anything like this nothing will take away the focus of his government from achieving the transition to democracy and for continuing the search for peace in Darfur."

International reaction to the effort to prosecute President Bashir has been mixed. Some humanitarian groups operating in the country have criticized the effort, saying that it could lead to reprisal attacks in Darfur and restrictions on humanitarian worker. The medical organization Doctors Without Borders says that the Sudanese government has told its international staff to leave a number of sites in south and west Darfur, saying their security cannot be guaranteed in the face of the warrant.

The African Union and the Arab League have both urged the U.N. Security Council to defer an arrest warrant for a year, saying the warrant could destabilize the country and threaten peace efforts. The United States, Britain, and France, however, have indicated they are unlikely to do so. China and Russia, while seen as more sympathetic to Khartoum, have been relatively quiet on this question.

Egypt's foreign minister called for the Security Council to hold a special meeting to consider suspending the warrant, according to Egypt state media. But Libya's UN ambassador, currently serving as the Security Council president, said this week the council has no immediate plans to discuss the issue.

Several advocacy and human rights groups welcomed the news of the warrant. Human Rights Watch said the ICC's decision sends a signal that even top leaders can be held accountable for international crimes, and Amnesty International called on President Bashir to turn himself in. The International Crisis Group called on the international community to back the court's decision and urged the government of Sudan to cooperate.

The ICC has already issued warrants for Sudan's humanitarian affairs minister, Ahmed Haroun, and a leader of a government-backed militia, Ali Kushayb. The ICC's prosecutor is also seeking charges against Darfur rebel leaders accused of attacking African Union peacekeepers in 2007. President Bashir has been in power for two decades, since seizing power in a coup in 1989.

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