Omar al-Bashir Q&A: 'In Any War, Mistakes Happen on the Ground'

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TIME sat down with Sudan's President Hassan Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum two weeks ago. In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the conflict in Darfur, where at least 200,000 people have died since 2003.

The interview — his first with the American newsmedia since the ICC's arrest warrants were issued — was conducted in collaboration with "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS. Here are edited highlights:

TIME: It's been 20 years since your government assumed power in Sudan. And there were a number of problems from the get-go: poor relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United States. At that time the southern rebels were much more powerful than the Sudanese Army. There then came the time of Osama bin Laden, more difficulties with the United States, a split in your government and now Darfur. How is it that your government has been able to stay in control for 20 years?

President Bashir: We came to power we had a clear vision about the problems facing the country. Therefore we had a clear vision of how to manage this country with its immense problems, the ones you mentioned, and we continue to face new problems. We have programs, qualified personnel, and a strong and solid internal organization that is able to face and address different issues.

We were also honest with our people, and showed and clarified to them the facts. And we found the people supporting the government. This is what allowed us to stand for 20 years in front of all the problems that you mentioned. In fact, not only did we withstand, but we also achieved great successes [such as] peace in southern Sudan, a number of peace issues and agreements, such as the Darfur Peace Agreement in Abuja, peace in eastern Sudan, peace with the political opposition groups that were outside of Sudan. We have an active diplomacy that has enabled us to remove all the external obstacles in our foreign relations, especially in Africa and the Arab world.

We have embarked on a development plan which I think has been successful. It is enough to mention that we have achieved an 8% average rate of [economic] growth in the last twenty years. The IMF describes the Sudanese economy as the fastest-growing economy in the world despite all these problems.

In testimony last week before the United States Senate, the U.S. Special Envoy for Darfur, General Scott Gration, said he no longer believes genocide is taking place in Darfur. Do you feel vindicated?

First, we appreciate General Gration's courage. We know that these facts are rejected by influential centers of power. We stress the fact that the situation in Darfur proves that there is no genocide or ethnic cleansing. The evidence is that displaced citizens from areas where there was fighting — and it is natural that in any area where there is military combat, civilians will emigrate — these citizens emigrated to government-controlled areas under the Sudanese Army, the police and local authorities. The movement of citizens toward government-controlled areas seeking security is evidence that the government could not be responsible [for] such acts.

Second, we have a federal system; security in Darfur is the responsibility of the governments of Darfur. The governments of Darfur are predominately made-up of members who belong to the same tribes that Sudan is accused of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing against. So it cannot be that [Darfuri] officials in the government who are representatives in local and state parliaments, and [Darfuris] who are widely represented in the security apparatuses [can be responsible for these crimes], at a time when there was no United Nations or African Union [presence], but only the government, which received these displaced persons.

What responsibility do you take for Darfur? Were mistakes made?

Any government in the world, when facing an armed rebellion, has a constitutional, legal and moral obligation to resist these militants. This happens everywhere. You will find in all the world's countries that militants that take up arms against a government are classified as "terrorists." Even those who resist occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are classified today as "terrorists." Except in Sudan, when some take up arms, the government is [considered] guilty! This is a clear targeting of the government.

As a government, it is our responsibility to maintain security for all citizens in Darfur. A rebellion happened there, from a small group, and any attempt to picture the militants as representatives of the people of Darfur is a big mistake. This is a minority of outlaws that initiated military operations against the government. The government did its best [in the beginning] to accommodate the situation peacefully, and did not react until the rebels rejected all attempts to reach a peaceful solution. When the rebels attacked El Fashir, the capital and largest city in Darfur — attacked the airport, destroyed a number of airplanes and even occupied parts of the city — the government then had to fulfill its responsibility.

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