Sudan official: Talks with Israel about international status

CAIRO (AP) — Sudan’s military said Wednesday the motive for agreeing to an initiative to normalize relations with Israel after decades of enmity was to help end the country’s status as an international pariah state.

The spokesman for Sudan’s armed forces, Brig. Amer Mohammed al-Hassan, said in a news conference that a meeting between the head of Sudan’s sovereign council and Israel’s prime minister in Uganda on Monday was part of efforts to end Sudan’s longtime status as a state supporter of terror.

The goal of the talks between Benjamin Netanyahu and Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, he said, was to help secure Sudan’s removal from the United States’ list of states that sponsor terror. The designation dates back to the 1990s, when Sudan briefly hosted Osama bin Laden and other wanted militants. The U.S. and Israel are staunch allies.

Sudan was also believed to have served as a pipeline for Iran to supply weapons to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Israel was thought to have been behind airstrikes in Sudan that destroyed a convoy in 2009 and a weapons factory in 2012.

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Monday’s meeting came just a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invited Burhan to visit the United States in a phone call. The date of the visit has not yet been set.

A senior Sudanese military official said Monday the Sudan-Israel meeting was orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of the U.S.

Netanyahu declared Monday on Twitter that Israel and Sudan were working toward normalizing relations. For Israel, it would be a major diplomatic breakthrough.

Burhan was quoted by al-Hassan as saying during a meeting with newspaper editors Wednesday that Sudan is under economic pressure and the country needs “bold decisions that shift Sudan’s domestic and foreign policy.”

Sudan is led by a military-civilian transitional council established following autocratic president Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in a popular uprising that ended his 30-year rule last April. Its interim civilian leaders had said the meeting with Netanyahu caught them by surprise.

Al-Hassan said that in the Monday meeting, the two leaders did not discuss U.S. President Donald’s Trump controversial plan for Israel and the Palestinians, unveiled last week.

The government has faced criticism from civil society leaders for the sudden warming in relations with Israel. Sudan, a Muslim-majority African country, has long said it supports the Palestinian people in their calls for an independent state.

Burhan, Sudan’s interim leader, said in a separate statement Tuesday that Sudan backs the Palestinian people’s aspirations to have an independent state.

Sudan is a member of the Arab League and joined other members at a meeting in Cairo on Saturday in rejecting Trump’s plan for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The plan, laid out by Trump late last week, heavily favors Israel.

Burhan also was quoted as saying that there had been “preparatory talks” about the meeting as early as three months ago, and that the country’s top civilian leader, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, was informed two days prior that the meeting would be taking place.

In a tweet Wednesday, Hamdok called on the country’s leaders to respect the official channels of foreign policy, saying that his Cabinet should be responsible for decisions related to international affairs. He said his government should ensure transparency, particularly during the transition period.

Hamdok’s remarks were the latest in a flurry of comments from government officials, Sudanese political parties and public figures who said they were caught off guard by the meeting, which they said was kept secret until Netanyahu announced it during the visit to Uganda.

Such a high-level meeting was bound to create controversy and be met with push- back, said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank and a former U.S. diplomat.

“Burhan and the military appear to be taking one for the team … taking the meeting and taking the punishment for it, which shows the degree to which they are committed to the survivability of the government,” he said. “They are willing to put their reputation on the line for this meeting.”

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Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Cairo contributed.

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