In Darfur, street protests over Bashir arrest warrant

International aid groups fear the Sudanese government will respond by putting up more obstacles to their relief work.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Supporters of Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir shout slogans during a demonstration in Khartoum, against the International Criminal Court (ICC) for issuing an arrest warrant for Bashir on Wednesday.

The angry crowd had one thing on its mind.

"Jihad, Jihad, Jihad," was the chant, before they listed their enemies: "Luis Moreno-Ocampo" and "America."

Speaker after speaker shouted their defiance Wednesday before a fist-waving audience of about 2,000 people in the center of El Fasher, the dusty capital of North Darfur. The city is a hub for international aid being distributed in the region.

The crowd assembled about an hour after the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague had announced that it was issuing its first-ever warrant for the arrest of a sitting president: Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir.

They arrived on foot – chanting and waving placards that read "Down with Ocampo" and "Stop the Conspiracy" – or in government buses.

Mr. Ocampo is the chief prosecutor at the ICC.

They heard from a succession of government officials and community leaders, who all voiced their anger.

"We are ready to set up camps to train our youths to defend our country against America and the enemies of Islam," Dirdiri Mohamed Ahmed, head of El Fasher's police. "We are with you President Bashir and are ready to die for you."

A sea of raised fists greeted every word.

There were similar scenes in Khartoum, where banner-waving crowds massed on the banks of the Nile, chanting, "We love you President Bashir," and trampling on portraits of Ocampo.

The public outcry was not unexpected. Embassies had warned foreign nationals to stock up on water and essentials and stay home Wednesday. Charity offices closed for the day and the United Nations sent nonessential staff home.

Certainly, there is genuine popular outrage over the arrest warrant, but the government-led protests organized around the country seemed a little lackluster, a little routine. They will allow the Bashir government to cite "public anger" with the ICC, while fighting the charges and keeping its options open too.

Most people here are waiting to see what comes next. Diplomats in Khartoum say the regime's real reaction will take weeks to emerge. Much will depend on how the world now treats a president accused of war crimes, they say.

Darfur aid workers worry

But international aid agencies here fear a backlash that could further disrupt the world's largest humanitarian operations. They are some of the most visible representatives of the international community and have long had a fraught relationship with the government.

Six – including Care International, CHF International, and the British charity Oxfam – have already seen their operations pared back. On Sunday, they were told to pull international staff out of 10 camps and towns in the region.

In El Fasher, NGO officials spent Wednesday morning in discussions with the wali (governor), trying to ensure that their activities would not be further disrupted.

"No one knows what will happen," said Thierry Durand, director of operations for MSF-France, reached by telephone in Khartoum. "Since the request by Ocampo to the judges last year, things have been very difficult in terms of the administrative burden and red tape. We are caught in this arm wrestling between Sudan and the ICC."

A show of military might

Earlier in the day, the government gave a more palpable and unmistakable statement about the ICC rulng – and any suggestion that instability might follow.

Sudan's military machine put on a show of force in and above the streets of El Fasher.

It began with a steady rumbling. As it drew nearer the ground began to shake.

Armored personnel carriers led the column. Then came the "technicals," pick-ups converted into battlewagons armed with heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. Soldiers lounged against the high-caliber barrels.

And behind them were the trucks crammed with infantry, some wearing balaclavas, others with scarves wrapped around their faces – all shouting, "Allahu Akhbar" ("God is Great").

"This is to show that the government is still in control of the town and if any of the rebel movements think they can try something then they should think again," said Elesail Abdul Munim, as more than 150 military trucks rumbled past a growing crowd in the town's market.

Just as the vehicles disappeared in a cloud of dust, the screech of two Air Force jets split the air. Two Chinese-built Sukhoi ground-attack planes passed low and fast overhead to the cheers of a gathering crowd.

The message to the people of Darfur was clear. While the ICC issued warrants for the arrest of Bashir, there should be no doubt about who was in control.

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