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Archive for Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sudan dismisses al-Qaida connection

April 25, 2006

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— Sudan dismissed Osama bin Laden's renewed calls for "jihad" in its troubled Darfur region, saying on Monday that it will not harbor terrorists or allow foreign interference in the country.

But outside experts said the chaos in Sudan - already spilling over to troubled neighbors like Chad - is exactly the kind of place al-Qaida has successfully exploited in the past and might again.

In a tape issuing more threats against the West on Sunday, bin Laden urged followers to go to Sudan to fight a proposed U.N. peacekeeping force for Darfur. Muslims must "get ready to conduct a long war against the crusader plunderers in western Sudan," he said in the audiotape, broadcast on Arab TV.

The call made headlines in most of Sudan's newspapers Monday, but Khartoum's leadership seemed eager to dissociate itself from bin Laden, who was based in the country through much of the 1990s but thrown out in 1996.

"We are not concerned with such statements, or any other statement that comes from foreign quarters about the crisis in Darfur," Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jamal Eldin Mohammad Ibrahim was quoted as saying by the Al Sahafa newspaper.

Sudan will cooperate with the international community to solve the ongoing humanitarian crisis "and we will not host any terrorist," the spokesman said.

However, experts said that although Khartoum was trying to distance itself from al-Qaida's leader, his words might nonetheless play into the government's hands.

Sudan's government has opposed the idea of shifting the peacekeeping mission in Darfur to the U.N. from the current African Union force, noted John Pendergast, a Sudan specialist with the International Crisis Group in Washington.

"The statement by bin Laden greatly serves their interest in Darfur," he said, and would "give a good pretext to those who are bent on preventing that from happening."

Yet few believe the government would deliberately allow al-Qaida into Sudan again.

Instead, most experts said bin Laden's appeal was aimed at attracting the Muslim world's attention to his vision of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Few expected large numbers of fighters to take bin Laden up on the call.

"He's trading on the prominence that Darfur has regained to push his own agenda and prove he's still around," said Eric Reeves, a Sudan specialist and a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND think tank in Washington, said the prospect of Western troops in another Muslim country is "an issue he can exploit. It proves his point about the West's war against Islam."

Al-Qaida has targeted Western forces in Africa before - including its attacks against U.S. troops trying to bring peace to Somalia in 1993.

On the streets of Khartoum, feelings ranged from scorn to angst.

Eating lunch at an open-air market in the Sudanese capital, Muhammadain Salih called bin Laden's call nonsense.

"I don't think his people can do anything in Darfur," said the 32-year merchant, himself from the western region. "The place is so remote, if (outside) Arabs went there, they'd be spotted straight away ... It's not like Iraq."

But Said Muhammad, a 35-year-old electrician, said "people should take what this guy says very seriously. Look at what he did in America."

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