Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, implicated by many in the international community in Darfur's genocide, visited the troubled region Saturday for the first time in the four-year conflict there.
The visit is part of the hardline leader's attempt to recast himself in the role of unifier. He is scheduled to visit Darfur's three provincial capitals in as many days.
An estimated 200,000 people have been killed and around 2.5 million displaced in the Darfur conflict, which began in 2003 when rebels from ethnic African tribes rose up against the Arab-dominated central government.
Al-Bashir's government is accused of having responded with indiscriminate killings by unleashing the janjaweed militias of Arab nomads — blamed for the worst atrocities in Darfur. The U.S. has condemned the killing as a genocide. The government denies the charges.
Under heavy pressure from the United Nations, al-Bashir recently agreed to allow the deployment of 3,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur to support 7,000 poorly equipped and underfunded African Union troops already there.
After arriving in South Darfur's provincial capital of Nyala, 600 miles southwest of the capital Khartoum, al-Bashir urged all citizens to unify against tribalism and sedition.
"We want you to unite your ranks and do not allow any intruders or agents to split you again," he said on the state-run radio.
‘Do not listen’
Accompanied by his ministers, al-Bashir was to also visit El Fasher, capital of North Darfur, where a Cabinet meeting will be held Sunday. On Monday, he is to fly to El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, before returning to Khartoum the same day.
In Nyala, al-Bashir criticized those trying to divide the citizens of Darfur as Arabs and Africans.
"This is but a plot that seeks to divide people as Arabs and blacks," he said. "Those who make such distinction seek sedition and plotting, do not listen to them."
Al-Bashir also urged "those still in the bushes" — an apparent reference to rebel fighters — to return home and join the peace process. He promised they would be compensated for losses incurred during the conflict.
"If you preserve the current peace and security ... we will shoulder the responsibility of development and see to it that you get compensation," he added. "We want the displaced persons to return to their home areas and cultivate the land."
U.S. sees ‘disturbing’ trend
Al-Bashir pledged not to allow any infringement on Sudan's unity and independence. He said only those who want to help are welcome — not those seeking to "colonize us," invoking historical battles against British colonial rule.
Just two weeks ago, the U.S. envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios accused al-Bashir's government of resuming bombing of civilians in Darfur and warned of a "disturbing" trend of Arab groups resettling in the area. His comments in Khartoum followed what he said was a resumption of attacks in Darfur after a lull of several months.