KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s leader welcomed on Monday “positive signs” sent by U.S. President Barack Obama to the Islamic world, striking a more conciliatory tone towards Washington, seen as an enemy of Khartoum in the past.
“We, our brothers and sisters, are seekers of peace and stability and we do not want our country to live under the shadows of swords and tension,” President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said at the opening of the eighth session of parliament.
“Our hands remain held out to those who call for peace and justice in accordance with the standards of fairness and dignity,” he added, echoing a phrase used by Obama in his inauguration address.
“We even welcome the positive signs sent by U.S. President Barack Obama to the Islamic world on more than one occasion.”
Washington has had tense relations with the Islamist government of Bashir, who came to power in Africa’s largest country in a 1989 coup.
The United States imposed economic sanctions on Sudan in 1997 and labelled it a “state sponsor of terrorism.”
Ties were strained further by the conflict in Darfur, which both Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush have called genocide, a description Sudan’s government rejects.
Bashir also used his speech Monday to defend a decision to expel 13 foreign aid agencies from Darfur last month after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against him for alleged war crimes in Sudan’s western region.
He said the decision was made “for the sake of protecting the sovereignty, security and independence of our country.”
Bashir’s comments came after a visit to Sudan this month by Obama’s special envoy to the country, Scott Gration, who met officials from the government, rebel groups and international organizations, promising to “look, learn and listen.”
Gration, who is expected to return to Sudan within months, said he was looking for friendship and cooperation from the Sudanese government but he did sound one note of criticism.
After visiting a refugee camp in Darfur, he said he was concerned the region was on the brink of a deeper humanitarian crisis following the expulsion of the aid agencies.
Gration’s predecessor Richard Williamson, appointed by Bush, 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.
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.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen)
Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Khartoum bureau