Home | News    Thursday 21 July 2005

Sudan apologizes after scuffles mar Rice talks

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EL-FASHER, Sudan, July 21 (AFP) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanded and received an apology from Sudan after officials and press accompanying her were "manhandled" by security staff at President Omar al-Beshir’s residence.

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Condoleezza Rice

"They had no right to manhandle my staff and the press," Rice told reporters after the incident on Thursday, in which US officials and reporters were violently barred from entering the meeting and security staff tried to confiscate press tapes.

"It makes me very angry to be sitting there with their president and have this happen," said Rice, who was in Sudan to urge Khartoum to step up efforts to end what she calls genocide in its battered western Darfur region.

Jim Wilkinson, senior adviser to Rice — who flew straight from the meeting to Darfur — said "she told them to apologize before we land in Darfur."

After landing in El-Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, Rice spokesman Sean McKormack said she received a personal phone call from Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail "apologising for the treatment of our delegation and the press corps accompanying the secretary."

US officials said the security men had tried to prevent them and the press from entering the meeting at Beshir’s residence and tried to confiscate tapes from a National Public Radio reporter before Rice’s staff intervened.

Wilkinson said he was grabbed and thrown against the wall at the entrance to Beshir’s residence before he bulled his way through with Rice’s personal assistant in tow behind him.

In the melee, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Connie Newman was initially barred from entering the meeting, as was Rice intepreter Gamal Helal.

"Freedom of the press is a wonderful thing and we don’t appreciate being manhandled at the front door," a fuming Wilkinson told reporters.

He accused the Sudanese of breaking the first rule of diplomacy.

"Diplomacy 101 says you don’t rough your guests up, especially the press," he said.

The Sudanese finally relented and let the American press in in two waves — although Wilkinson was seen waving an angry finger at the foreign minister.

A Sudanese official quickly came out to apologise to the second group of journalists, held back in the anteroom to the residence.

"It is not our intention in any way to bar the press from doing its job," said Khidir Haroun Ahmed, chief of the Sudanese mission to the United States.

Later, when NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell tried to ask why Khartoum should be believed in its promises to crack down on militias in Darfur, she was cut off and pushed away by the Sudanese security.

Wilkinson again angrily intervened, warning: "Don’t ever touch our journalists again", and Rice personally apologised to Mitchell afterwards.

Rice was in Sudan — a country under US sanctions and still branded by Washington a state sponsor of terrorism — as part of a five-day trip that has already taken her to Senegal and that is to end in the Middle East.

She has said she expects decisive movement from Khartoum to end the fighting in Darfur, stressing Washington still considered the conflict to be "genocide".

Beshir said at the beginning of the meeting with Rice that "we do not want to go back to war in any part of the country," but an official present for the entire meeting said he was noncommital about disarming the government-backed Janjaweed militia.

The government’s proxy militia has been accused of murder, torture, widespread rape and other human rights abuses against the civilian population.

"If you only disarm one side in conflict, the result is going to be genocide," the official said.

US officials said they had frank talks with the Sudanese on Thursday. Wilkinson said Rice was "very direct about the scepticism of the international community about their ability to improve Darfur."

"She was very firm with Ismail in their meeting," he added.

Officials said the Sudanese had agreed to make an effort to crack down on violence against women in Darfur and had asked for humanitarian wavers of sanctions so they could buy spare part for railways or aircraft to help speed food deliveries and the relocation of displaced people.

Rice said she would look at it but gave no firm commitment, the officials said.

She earlier conferred with Ismail and Vice President John Garang — a former rebel leader from southern Sudan — before heading to Darfur to assess what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

In Darfur, Rice was to visit a camp for displaced persons and meet women affected by the violence that has left up to 300,000 people dead and more than two million homeless.

The trip also came amid heightened concern about the pace of the African Union’s deployment of forces to monitor the situation in Darfur.

Fighting has raged in Darfur since February 2003, when local groups rose up against Khartoum’s Arab-dominated government in protest at the marginalisation of the region’s black African tribes.

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The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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