BEIJING: Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir arrived in China on Tuesday for talks with President Hu Jintao, as the United States and rights groups criticised Beijing for hosting an alleged war criminal.
Bashir's presidential plane touched down in Beijing in the early hours, a day later than planned, an AFP journalist saw -- after Sudan's foreign ministry said it was forced to choose a “new route” while flying over Turkmenistan.
The unexplained change in plans has forced an overhaul of Bashir's schedule, but not a cancellation of talks with Hu nor a red-carpet ceremony at the Great Hall of the People for a man who is unwelcome in many countries in the world.
Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred in Sudan's western Darfur region, where about 300,000 people have died since 2003.
China is a key supporter of the Sudanese leader, who is the first sitting head of state targeted by an ICC arrest warrant.
Bashir's meetings with Hu and other senior Chinese leaders are now set for Wednesday, according to the foreign ministry in Beijing.
The Sudanese leader had been due to stay in China until Thursday, but it was unclear whether the delay would now prolong his stay. He last visited the country in 2006.
“This visit is the continuation of the distinguished relations between Sudan and China, which have remained friendly and progressive,” Bashir told China's official Xinhua news agency in an interview ahead of the trip.
He hailed Beijing as a “strategic partner” and also noted that China “does not intervene in the internal affairs of others”.
Beijing on Tuesday again defended the visit, with foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying: “As a friendly country of China, the Sudanese leader's visit to China is quite reasonable.” The spokesman added: “In recent years, President Bashir has made many visits to foreign countries and was warmly welcomed by those countries. He will also be welcomed in China.” He said Bashir's visit would be “conducive to the development of the traditional friendship between China and Sudan, as well as the advancement of the peace process of North-South Sudan” and would touch on Darfur.
Officials at the Sudanese embassy in Beijing were not immediately available for comment when contacted by AFP.
Beijing is a key military supplier to the regime in Khartoum and the biggest buyer of the country's oil, although the majority of Sudan's oil fields are located in the south, which will become independent on July 9.
In the interview with Xinhua, Bashir insisted southern independence “will not affect the relationship” between Beijing and Khartoum, hailing China as a model “real partner”.
The Sudanese leader's visit to China has sparked outrage among rights groups, and earned the reproach of the US State Department.
“We continue to oppose invitations, facilitation, support for travel by ICC indictees,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
“We have a longstanding policy of strongly urging other nations to do the same,” she said. “We have urged China to join the international community in its call for Sudan to cooperate fully with the ICC.”ICC statutes dictate that any member country should arrest Bashir if he visits. China is not a party to those statutes, nor is the United States.
“We reserve our opinion on the ICC's prosecution against President Bashir,” Hong said Tuesday.
Bashir arrived in China from Iran, where he attended a counter-terrorism summit which also included the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Tajikistan.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has said Bashir's trip was “an affront to victims of heinous crimes committed in Darfur” and has urged Beijing to withdraw its invitation or arrest Bashir on arrival.
Amnesty International said earlier this month that China risked becoming a “safe haven for alleged perpetrators of genocide” if it hosted Bashir.
Topics expected to come up in Bashir's talks with Hu include Chinese aid to Sudan and problems in Abyei, a disputed border area claimed both by Bashir's Khartoum-based northern Sudan regime and the rival government in the south.
The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Monday to send a 4,200-strong Ethiopian peacekeeping force to Abyei in a bid to douse tensions.
An estimated two million people died in Sudan's two-decade civil war.
A 2005 peace accord, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ended the conflict and allowed for a referendum in January in which the south voted by an overwhelming majority to split from the north.
Abyei did not take part in the referendum because the two sides could not agree who should be eligible to vote.
Fighting is also flaring in South Kordofan, which borders Abyei.