Bashir arrives in China for talks

2011-06-28 10:06

Beijing - Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir arrived in China on Tuesday for talks with President Hu Jintao, as the United States and rights groups criticised Beijing for hosting an alleged war criminal.

Bashir's presidential plane touched down in Beijing in the early hours, a day later than planned, an AFP journalist saw - after Sudan's foreign ministry said it was forced to choose a "new route" while flying over Turkmenistan.

The unexplained change in plans has forced an overhaul of Bashir's schedule, but not a cancellation of talks with Hu nor a red-carpet welcome at the Great Hall of the People for a man who is unwelcome in many countries in the world.

Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred in Sudan's western Darfur region, where about 300 000 people have died since 2003.

China is a key supporter of the Sudanese leader, who is the first sitting head of state targeted by an ICC arrest warrant.

Bashir's meetings with Hu and other senior Chinese leaders are now set for Wednesday, according to the foreign ministry in Beijing.

The Sudanese leader had been due to stay in China until Thursday, but it was unclear whether the delay would now prolong his stay. He last visited the country in 2006.

"This visit is the continuation of the distinguished relations between Sudan and China, which have remained friendly and progressive," Bashir told China's official Xinhua news agency in an interview ahead of the trip.

He hailed Beijing as a "strategic partner" and also noted that China "does not intervene in the internal affairs of others".

Longstanding policy

Beijing last week defended the visit, with foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei saying: "It's quite reasonable for China to invite the head of a state that has diplomatic ties with China to come for a visit."

Xinhua quoted Hong as saying leaders from the two sides would "discuss how to consolidate China-Sudan relations and expand co-operation", as well as exchange views on the situation in Darfur and Sudan's peace process.

Beijing is a key military supplier to the regime in Khartoum and the biggest buyer of the country's oil, although the majority of Sudan's oil fields are located in the south, which will become independent on July 09.

In the interview with Xinhua, Bashir insisted southern independence "will not affect the relationship" between Beijing and Khartoum, hailing China as a model "real partner".

The Sudanese leader's visit to China has sparked outrage among rights groups, and earned the reproach of the US State Department.

"We continue to oppose invitations, facilitation, support for travel by ICC indictees," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said on Monday.

"We have a longstanding policy of strongly urging other nations to do the same," she said. "We have urged China to join the international community in its call for Sudan to co-operate fully with the ICC."

ICC statutes dictate that any member country should arrest Bashir if he visits. China is not a party to those statutes, nor is the United States.

Bashir arrived in China from Iran, where he attended a counter-terrorism summit which also included the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Tajikistan.

Peace agreement

New York-based Human Rights Watch has said Bashir's trip was "an affront to victims of heinous crimes committed in Darfur" and has urged Beijing to withdraw its invitation or arrest Bashir upon his arrival.

Amnesty International said earlier this month that China risked becoming a "safe haven for alleged perpetrators of genocide" if it hosted Bashir.

Topics expected to come up in Bashir's talks with Hu include Chinese aid to Sudan and problems in Abyei, a disputed border area claimed both by Bashir's Khartoum-based northern Sudan regime and the rival government in the south.

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Monday to send a 4 200-strong Ethiopian peacekeeping force to Abyei in a bid to douse tensions.

North and south Sudan fought a two-decade civil war in which two million people died.

A 2005 peace accord, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ended the conflict and allowed for a referendum in January in which the south voted by an overwhelming majority to split from the north.

Abyei did not take part in the referendum because the two sides could not agree who should be eligible to vote.

Fighting is also flaring in South Kordofan, which borders Abyei.