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US Sends Junior Diplomat to Bashir Inauguration

The State Department says the decision to send a U.S. diplomat to Thursday's inauguration of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir does not signal any change in the United States' view that the Sudanese leader should face justice for alleged war crimes in Darfur. Human rights groups are criticizing the decision.

The State Department says its dispatch of a junior foreign service officer to the inaugural ceremony reflects the broad agenda the United States has with the Sudanese government, but signals no change in its policy of avoiding dealings with President Bashir himself.

Human rights groups had urged a boycott of the ceremonies at which the Sudanese leader was sworn in for a new five-year term, after winning an election last month marred by fraud charges.

A coalition of eight U.S. human rights and Darfur activist groups Friday criticized the decision to send an American diplomat to the event, calling it a missed opportunity to lead by example.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. delegate was a junior consular officer from the embassy in Khartoum. He added most states with Sudan relations had sent more senior representatives.

Crowley noted that Sudan's Vice President Salva Kiir, the southern Sudanese leader with whom the United States has extensive dealings, was also sworn in for a new term at the event.

Crowley said the fact the United States has no direct ties with President Bashir, and wants to see him answer war crimes charges from the International Criminal Court, or ICC, is well known and unchanged. "Our presence at this ceremony should not be confused in any way with our continuing pledge that President Bashir should respond to the warrant for his arrest for war crimes in Darfur. We continue to believe that those responsible for war crimes in Sudan should be held accountable for their actions. But we are working closely with the government of Sudan on ways to resolve the situation in Darfur," he said.

While shunning contact with President Bashir, U.S. Sudan envoy Scott Gration has made several trips to Sudan in recent months to help clear away obstacles to a referendum early next year, as called for in Sudan's 2005 north-south peace accord. In the referendum, Southern Sudan will vote on whether to become independent.

A senior State Department official said the Obama administration made an "affirmative decision" to attend the ceremony to send a message on the important bilateral work that lies ahead in the peace process.

He also said the United States is relying on Sudanese authorities for help in obtaining the release of an American citizen who was among three aid workers kidnapped earlier this month in Darfur.

In another development, spokesman Crowley said the United States is sending an observer team headed by State Department Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen Rapp, to a review conference opening in Kampala next Monday on the 1998 treaty that set up the ICC.

The United States initially signed the treaty, called the Rome Statute, but the Bush administration later withdrew from the pact.

Crowley said the decision to attend the Uganda meeting is in keeping with the Obama administration's policy of international engagement and should not be seen as an indication that the United States is reconsidering its position on the ICC.