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25.08.2020 Sudan

Pompeo visits Sudan on tour to boost Israel's Arab ties

By Sammy Ketz
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a five-day tour with stops in Israel, Sudan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, focusing on Israel's normalisation of ties with the UAE and pushing other Arab states to follow suit.  By DEBBIE HILL (POOL/AFP)
LISTEN AUG 25, 2020
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a five-day tour with stops in Israel, Sudan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, focusing on Israel's normalisation of ties with the UAE and pushing other Arab states to follow suit. By DEBBIE HILL (POOL/AFP)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Sudan Tuesday on a tour urging more Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel, following the US-brokered Israel-UAE agreement.

Pompeo, the first American top diplomat to visit Sudan since 2005, arrived on a historic "first official non-stop flight" from Tel Aviv, he tweeted from the plane.

Israel remains technically at war and has no formal diplomatic relations with Sudan, which for years supported hardline Islamist forces under its former strongman Omar al-Bashir.

But its new transitional government has vowed to break with the Bashir era following his ouster last year amid popular pro-democracy protests.

Pompeo was to meet Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Sovereign Council Chair General Abdel Fattah el-Burhan to discuss continued US support for the civilian-led transitional government "and express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship," the State Department said.

Sudanese protesters rallied on December 19, 2019 to celebrate the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled Omar al-Bashir.  By ASHRAF SHAZLY (AFP/File) Sudanese protesters rallied on December 19, 2019 to celebrate the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled Omar al-Bashir. By ASHRAF SHAZLY (AFP/File)

Sudan, which has launched sweeping social and political reforms, now hopes Washington will soon take it off its blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism as it seeks to fully re-integrate into the international community.

Closer ties with US ally Israel would help, and both sides have already taken a series of steps, muddied however by mixed messaging from Sudan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Burhan in Uganda in February and later announced that the two leaders had agreed to cooperate towards normalising ties.

Sudan's cabinet later denied that Burhan had made such a promise, which remains highly controversial in much of the Arab world.

More recently, Sudan's foreign ministry spokesman Haider Badawi said he was in favour of such an accord, but foreign minister Omar Gamaledinne then said the issue had "never been discussed by the Sudanese government" and promptly fired the spokesman.

The coalition of parties and civil society groups which led the protest movement, the Forces of Freedom and Change, argued Tuesday that the government has "no mandate" to normalise ties with Israel, pointing to "the right of Palestinians to their land and to a free and dignified life".

Thawing US relations

Pompeo was to meet Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to discuss US support for his civilian-led transitional government and 'for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship', said the State Department.  By ASHRAF SHAZLY (AFP/File) Pompeo was to meet Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to discuss US support for his civilian-led transitional government and 'for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship', said the State Department. By ASHRAF SHAZLY (AFP/File)

Pompeo's regional trip, also taking in Bahrain and the UAE, comes in the wake of the landmark August 13 announcement of a normalisation of relations between the Emirates and the Jewish state.

Speaking in Jerusalem on Monday, both Pompeo and Netanyahu said that they were hopeful that other Arab states would follow suit -- in part to boost an alliance against their common arch foe Iran.

Sudan has been under US sanctions for decades because of the presence of Islamists, including Osama bin Laden, who lived there for years in the 1990s before heading to Afghanistan.

While the US lifted a 20-year trade embargo against Sudan in October 2017, it kept the country on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Khartoum has been lobbying hard to have that designation lifted.

Sudan has been in talks on compensating victims of Bashir-era Al-Qaeda attacks, including the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen and the simultaneous 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Since January Washington has upgraded its diplomatic representation in Khartoum from the level of charge d'affaires to posting an ambassador.

Sudan's ousted president Omar al-Bashir arriving at the start of his trial over the 1989 coup against a democratically elected government that brought him to power.  By Mohammed ABUAMRAIN (AFP/File) Sudan's ousted president Omar al-Bashir arriving at the start of his trial over the 1989 coup against a democratically elected government that brought him to power. By Mohammed ABUAMRAIN (AFP/File)

The Pompeo visit comes as Sudan is in deep economic crisis -- having suffered decades-long US sanctions and the 2011 secession of the country's oil-rich south.

Grappling with high inflation and the coronavirus pandemic, the country badly needs to attract more foreign aid and investment

The United Nations says more than 9.6 million people -- almost a quarter of Sudan's population -- is suffering severe food insecurity.

"They are extremely keen to have US sanctions lifted and they are under heavy UAE influence," said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

While Bashir is on trial over the Islamist-backed coup that brought him to power over three decades ago, the new transitional government in Khartoum is at pains to distance itself from his legacy.

It has agreed in principle to hand Bashir over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his role in the Darfur conflict on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Conflict broke out in the Darfur region in 2003 when ethnic minority rebels staged an uprising against the government, citing marginalisation and discrimination.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Monday in Jerusalem at the start of Pompeo's regional tour.  By DEBBIE HILL (POOL/AFP) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Monday in Jerusalem at the start of Pompeo's regional tour. By DEBBIE HILL (POOL/AFP)

Khartoum responded by unleashing the feared Janjaweed militia, mainly recruited from Arab pastoralist tribes, in a scorched earth campaign that left 300,000 people dead and displaced 2.5 million.

Hamdok has made finding a peace deal with rebel groups a priority, in order to bring stability to restive regions that also include Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

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