Malawi ignores outcry at Bashir visit
Lilongwe - Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika ignored the outcry at his hosting of Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for genocide, as he opened a regional trade summit on Friday.
Bashir was among six heads of state at the meeting of the 19-member Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), despite calls from the European Union and international rights groups for Malawi to arrest him.
Bashir is the first sitting president indicted by the International Criminal Court, which issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sudan's troubled Darfur region.
Malawi is a party to the court, but senior officials told AFP that Bashir would not be arrested.
Mutharika made no mention of his controversial guest as he opened the summit, but did try to patch over a feud with Michael Sata, the new president of neighbouring Zambia, who refused to attend.
"In a special way, I welcome into the Comesa family his excellency Michael Sata who was recently elected as head of our sister nation Zambia," Mutharika said.
Mutharika had deported Sata and declared him persona non grata when he made a private visit to Malawi in 2006, when he was still an opposition leader.
The reasons for his deportation were never made clear, and Sata has refused to visit the country until he receives an apology.
The summit will look to take steps toward forming a single 26-nation free trade bloc stretching from Cape Town to Cairo, by joining with the East African Community and the Southern African Development Community.
The three blocs agreed to merge last year, and have given themselves three years to remove tariffs on trade in goods. The new bloc would have a combined economy estimated at $875bn.
Mutharika said since the first summit of the regional grouping was held 17 years ago in Malawi, Comesa had become a "viable, pragmatic and economic development institution."
"The progress made in 17 years is there for all to see," he said, praising himself for being the first secretary general of the Preferential Trade Area (PTA), a forerunner of Comesa.
But the trade talks have been overshadowed by the uproar over Bashir's visit.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Malawi to arrest Bashir, noting the country's "obligations under international law to comply with the International Criminal Court".