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Al-Bashir Visits Eritrea, Defies ICC Warrant

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KHARTOUM — Sudan's president traveled to Eritrea Monday, choosing one of Africa's most politically isolated nations for his first trip abroad since an international court sought his arrest on charges of war crimes in Darfur.

The one-day visit followed Eritrea's official invitation to Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, who faces the arrest warrant by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court.

Eritrean television showed live coverage of al-Bashir being greeted at the airport in the Eritrean capital Asmara by his counterpart President Isaias Afwerki, along with drummers and dancers. Sudanese state television later Monday showed live images of al-Bashir returning to Khartoum.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Deng Alor said the visit was "important" and reflected Eritrean "solidarity ... with Sudan against the ICC." Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu told The Associated Press that al-Bashir was accompanied by heads of security and intelligence and was there to discuss regional security.

The ICC charged al-Bashir on March 4 of leading a counterinsurgency against Darfur rebels that involved rapes, killings and other atrocities against civilians. His government has been accused of unleashing Arab militiamen known as janjaweed against Darfur civilians in a drive to put down a revolt by ethnic Africans in the region.

Up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million driven from their homes in the conflict since 2003, according to the U.N.

Under the ICC charter, member states are bound to arrest those indicted when they enter their territory. Eritrea is not a signatory, however, and has vehemently condemned the indictment, making it a kind of safe haven for el-Bashir to visit.

"It's unjustifiable and illegal and illogical and futile, the so-called ICC decision," said Abdu. "We believe it's an extension and symptom of the ongoing world hegemony and domination by a few powers in this world."

The tiny Horn of Africa nation has itself come under harsh criticism from the U.S. State Department and international human rights groups for its human rights record. The U.S. government has previously debated designating Eritrea a state sponsor of terrorism because of its support for hardline Islamist insurgents in Somalia fighting a weak regime backed by the U.S. and the U.N.

Al-Bashir is also scheduled to attend the Arab League summit at the end of the month in the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar. But there have been public calls in Sudan for him to stay home for fears he might be arrested.

The 22-member Arab League has publicly stated that al-Bashir would be welcome at the March 27 summit. Qatar is not an ICC signatory, and only a few Arab League countries are. The organization's chief Amr Moussa said last week that member nations would not act on the arrest warrant.

But Sudan's Islamic scholars have issued a religious edict calling on al-Bashir not to travel to the Arab summit, because of fears the arrest warrant could be implemented.

Alor, the foreign minister, said after the Eritrean visit that "so far, the presidency hasn't decided on the President's visit to Doha." Presidential spokesman Mahgoub Fadhel, however, said Monday that "there is nothing standing in the way of the president himself going there."

Al-Bashir, who dismisses the ICC as a prejudiced court with no jurisdiction over Sudan, caused an international outcry by expelling 13 international aid organizations from Darfur after the arrest warrant was issued for him. He accused the groups of spying for the tribunal and threatened to expel more organizations and even ambassadors if they overstepped their mandate.

The expulsions punch a giant hole in the safety net that has kept many Darfur civilians alive during six years of war. Without the groups, 1.1 million people will be without food, 1.5 million without health care, and more than one million without drinking water _ and outbreaks of infectious disease are a greater danger, the U.N. has said.

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Associated Press writer Anita Powell in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.