April 2, 2009 / 11:27 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. envoy wants friendship, cooperation from Sudan

* U.S. envoy says in Sudan to "look, learn, listen"

* Sudan welcomes Washington’s change in tone

(Adds Sudan official in paragraphs 4-5, background)

By Andrew Heavens

KHARTOUM, April 2 (Reuters) - A new U.S. special envoy told Sudan on Thursday he had come to "look, learn and listen" and hoped for its friendship and cooperation, indicating a shift in tone by Washington under President Barack Obama.

"I come here with my hands open. It will be up to the Sudanese government to determine how they want to continue with the relationship. Hopefully it will be with hands of friendship and cooperation," envoy Scott Gration told journalists in Khartoum, speaking partly in Arabic.

It is retired Air Force General Scott Gration’s first visit since Obama named him last month as special envoy to war-ravaged Sudan, picking a close adviser with broad experience in the region to lead U.S. efforts on the worsening humanitarian situation in west Sudan’s Darfur region.

Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig said Sudan welcomed the change in tone.

"(Gration) was told that Sudan recognises that the United States is a very important country in the world and Sudan will always want to maintain cordial and normal relations with the United States," Sadig said.

International experts say at least 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2.7 million driven from their homes in almost six years of ethnic and politically driven fighting in Darfur. Khartoum says 10,000 people have died.

Western powers have been deeply critical of Sudan over the crisis, and the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on accusations of masterminding war crimes in the region.



CRISIS OVER EXPULSIONS

Obama quickly sent Gration to tell Khartoum that Sudan faces an immediate crisis over the government’s decision to expel some aid groups from Darfur after the ICC move.

The United States, while not a member of the ICC, supported the decision to go for Bashir, who was indicted on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity but not for genocide.

The United States imposed economic sanctions on Sudan in 1997, well before the Darfur conflict flared, and labelled it a "state sponsor of terrorism."

Gration was due to visit both Darfur and the southern capital of Juba after talks in Khartoum with Sudanese officials.

"The objective of this trip is to learn. I am coming here with no illusions, no preconceived ideas and no solutions. I am coming here to look and to learn and to listen," Gration said.

"The United States and Sudan want to be partners, and so we are looking for opportunities for us to build stronger bilateral relations."

Sudan’s U.N. ambassador has said Khartoum is ready for constructive talks with Gration. Khartoum has been pushing for full normalisation of relations with Washington and an end to the sanctions.

Gration’s predecessor Richard Williamson, appointed by former President George W. Bush, had stormy relations with Sudan. He suspended talks on normalising relations with Sudan last year, saying northern and southern Sudanese leaders were not serious about reconciling after a decades-long civil war. (Writing by Cynthia Johnston in Cairo, editing by Tim Pearce)




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