ABU SHOUK, Sudan — Sudan’s foreign minister on Thursday apologized to visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the manhandling of U.S. officials and journalists in Khartoum, a U.S. official said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail had phoned Rice while she was on a plane to Darfur in western Sudan to say sorry.
“He apologized for the treatment of our delegation and the press corps,” McCormack told journalists travelling with Rice, Reuters reported.
Earlier, Rice told journalists she wanted an apology.
“It makes me very angry to be sitting there with their president and have this happen,” she said. “They have no right to push and shove.”
“Diplomacy 101 says you don’t rough your guests up,” Rice senior adviser Jim Wilkinson had said earlier as he and reporters traveling with Rice faced off with guards at the ultra-high-security residence of Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir.
El-Bashir’s guards elbowed Americans and tried to rip a tape away from a U.S. reporter. At another point, Rice’s interpreter and some other aides accompanying her were blocked at a gate.
Ambassador Khidir Haroun Ahmed, head of the Sudanese mission in Washington, attempted to smooth over the situation. “Please accept our apologies,” he told reporters and Rice aides. “This is not our policy.”
NBC correspondent roughed up
Shortly after the first apology, another scuffle broke out when NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell tried to ask el-Bashir a question about his involvement with alleged atrocities.
"Why should the U.S. believe the Sudanese government will stop the killing when the government is still supporting the militia?" Mitchell asked, before guards grabbed her and muscled her toward the rear of the room as State Department officials shouted at the guards to leave her alone.
The session at el-Bashir’s residence capped a morning of meetings before a scheduled visit to the western Darfur providence, where the United States blames his government for recruiting and equipping rebel militiamen to massacre rural villagers and burn their homes.
He denies government involvement, but the United States and international organizations say his military sent helicopter gunships to bomb small villages before rebels swept in with horses, guns and knives.
Rice points to positive developments
Prior to her meeting with el-Bashir, Rice said the United States is making a difference to relieve a refugee crisis and African peacekeeping troops are helping to stop atrocities.
“We are not where we were a year ago,” Rice said Wednesday, ahead of her first trip to Sudan as secretary of state. “We are in a different circumstance and the United States has spent a great deal of money and a lot of diplomatic and other energy to try and bring this conflict to a conclusion.”
War-induced hunger and disease have killed more than 180,000 people and driven more than 2 million from their homes in what Rice reaffirmed Wednesday was a case of genocide.
Rice was touring a refugee camp in Darfur on Thursday, and meeting privately with women to discuss recurring sexual violence against women refugees. The camp, Abu Shouk, is the second-largest in Sudan, with more than 70,000 residents in mud brick huts.
Some rebels wore uniforms provided by the Sudanese Army, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios said Wednesday.
Sudan formed a new reconciliation government this month, following a peace agreement to end a 21-year-year civil war between the Muslim north and the mainly Christian and animist south that killed an estimated 2 million people.
That conflict was separate from the Darfur killing, which began after black African tribes took up arms in February 2003, complaining of discrimination and oppression by Sudan’s Arab-dominated government. The Sudanese government then allegedly responded by backing a counterinsurgency by Arab militia known as the Janjaweed.
El-Bashir remains in charge of the new government with former black African rebel leader John Garang installed as a new vice president. On Tuesday, Garang dissolved his guerrilla movement and dismissed all government officials in 10 former rebel-controlled southern states.
The United States has held the Arab-dominated former government at arm’s length, operating an embassy without a full ambassador and listing Sudan, Africa’s largest country, among the nations sponsoring terrorism.
Still, the Bush administration has made Sudan a focus of diplomatic and humanitarian efforts, with $700 million spent for humanitarian needs over the past two years. The United States also supplies logistical help for African troops newly installed as peacekeepers.
The period of “ethnic cleansing” has largely ended, Natsios said, and the Darfur crisis has now shifted to peacekeeping and the administration of huge refugee camps.
“The level of attacks has clearly diminished,” Natsios said. “The major reason for that, frankly, is there are not many villages left to burn down and destroy.”
The United Nations has estimated that 2,000 Sudanese villages have been completely or partially destroyed.
In addition to short-term humanitarian needs, the United States and others are trying to prevent the temporary camps from becoming permanent fixtures in Darfur.
“I think the people in those camps want to go home,” Natsios said, although some refugee organizations say that is far from universally true.
“They want their land back and they want their animals back,” Natsios said.
He acknowledged that the camps can be attractive for people without many resources, and that some Sudanese city dwellers who were not victims of the Janjaweed have moved in to take advantage of food and services, including education.
NBC News staff, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.