CAIRO — Egypt, one of the strongest U.S. allies in the Middle East, welcomed Sudan's president on Wednesday despite an international warrant seeking his arrest on charges of war crimes in Darfur.
Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's wanted leader, was making his first high-profile journey abroad since the warrant was issued March 4 by the International Criminal Court. He was emboldened by the 22-nation Arab League's decision not to act on the warrant, though three of its member countries are signatories to the court's founding treaty.
Al-Bashir is also planning to attend an Arab summit in Qatar at the end of the month, though its prime minister says the country is under pressure not to host him.
His visit to Egypt was another show of defiance by al-Bashir, who responded swiftly to the arrest warrant by expelling 13 international aid groups from Darfur, exposing hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the six-year conflict to a possibly even greater humanitarian crisis.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak received al-Bashir at Cairo's airport along with senior government ministers in a show of solidarity with the Sudanese leader that drew criticism from rights groups. The two leaders discussed the search for a resolution to the Darfur conflict.
Egypt is not a signatory to the ICC's founding treaty, and both it and the Arab League have backed al-Bashir, arguing that issuing the warrant would further destabilize the country.
"There is an Egyptian, Arab, African position that rejects the way the court has dealt with the status of the president of Sudan," Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister, said at a news conference.
The ICC charged al-Bashir with leading a counterinsurgency against Darfur rebels that has 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 western region.
Up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been driven from their homes since 2003, according to the U.N.
The tribunal, based in The Hague, Netherlands, did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on al-Bashir's visit.
Egypt again raised the idea of holding an international conference to search for a Darfur settlement that it hopes would help persuade the U.N. Security Council to halt the case against al-Bashir, Aboul Gheit said. The ICC is not a U.N. court but the Security Council can ask it to open or freeze investigations.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Deng Alor, who accompanied al-Bashir to Cairo, said Sudan will try government officials on charges related to Darfur crimes in its own courts.
"A special Sudanese prosecutor has been appointed specially for Darfur and he is now collecting information on the charges against some of the Sudanese leaders," Alor said, without naming the suspects.
Amnesty International said al-Bashir's visit to Egypt was a missed opportunity for enforcing the warrant.
"Egypt and other members of the League of Arab States should not shield President al-Bashir from international justice," said Irene Khan, Amnesty's secretary-general.
The Justice and Equality Movement, Darfur's most powerful rebel group, also criticized Egypt. "We wanted Egypt to use its leverage to advise al-Bashir ... to hand himself in," said Ahmed Hussein, the movement's spokesman.
Al-Bashir briefly visited the politically isolated African nation Eritrea on Monday _ his first venture abroad since the warrant. But Egypt is a major U.S. ally in the Middle East and a heavyweight in the Arab world.
Under the ICC charter, member states should arrest those indicted when they enter their territory. Only three Arab League states are party to the charter: Jordan, Djibouti and Comoros.
The United States is not a member of the court, but has said that anyone who has committed atrocities should be held accountable.
Qatar's prime minister, Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani, said his nation has been subjected to "pressure" not to receive al-Bashir at the March 27 Arab League summit, Qatar's official news agency reported.
"There are pressures, but you know Qatar well. We have extended the invitation," the Qatari premier said, according to the report. "We respect international law and we respect the attendance of President al-Bashir and welcome him."
Meanwhile, reports of violence persisted in Darfur where at least two people died in a fire set by unidentified gunmen in a refugee camp, peacekeepers and a rebel group said Wednesday.
The peacekeepers said in a statement that residents of the Abu Zar camp said four men, two in military uniform, entered the camp early Wednesday and set the fire before fleeing. The peacekeepers are investigating the fire, which left considerable damage.
The Justice and Equality Movement reported that at least three people were killed. The group's spokesman, Ahmed Hussein, said it was the second attack on the camp since February. He accuses the government of wanting to empty the refugee camps.