Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir visited Eritrea yesterday in a cautious first step outside his country since a warrant for his arrest was issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) earlier this month.
If the move was calculated to show defiance of the international community, the choice of one of Africa's most isolated countries also communicated the unease in Khartoum over the outstanding warrant.
The visit, ostensibly to discuss regional security, was also a means of gauging Mr Bashir's support outside Sudan ahead of a much higher profile expected trip later this month to the Arab summit in Qatar, diplomats said.
Fouad Hikmat, an analyst from the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, said: "This is like an internal trip for him, just to show the ICC, 'look I can travel' because no one is going to say anything to Eritrea. The real question is whether he will be able to cross international air space to visit Qatar."
On Sunday, Sudan's highest religious authority issued a warning to Mr Bashir not to travel to Qatar. The Committee for Islamic Scholars cited threats from enemies outside the country in advising him to skip the annual summit. The ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo has called for Mr Bashir's arrest as soon as he enters international airspace.
The President has dismissed the court as a Western stooge and embarked on a so-called "defiance tour" of Darfur the day after the warrant was issued. His views were echoed yesterday by authorities in Eritrea where the information minister, Ali Abdu, asked: "Why should we worry about the ICC issue? It's unjustifiable and illegal and illogical and futile, the so-called ICC decision. We believe it's an extension and symptom of the ongoing world hegemony and domination by a few powers in this world."
The former army man who came to power in Sudan in a 1989 coup was greeted in Eritrea by the President Isaias Afwerki and a group of drummers and dancers.
Neither Eritrea nor Qatar are among the 108 signatories to the Rome treaty which established the ICC and are under no obligation to arrest him.
The tiny Horn of Africa nation is itself an international pariah accused of widespread human rights abuses as well as support for the Islamic insurgency in its southern neighbour Somalia.
The Arab League has invited the Sudanese President and he is expected to look to them for support in replacing some of the emergency operations conducted by the international agencies he has expelled. Immediately after the ICC charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity were announced, 13 of the largest aid agencies were expelled from Darfur and accused of spying for the tribunal. The remaining aid organisations have been warned that they too face expulsion along with any foreign ambassador perceived to have overstepped their mandate.
The UN has criticised Khartoum over the ejections as humanitarian agencies are credited with keeping millions of civilians alive in Darfur where Mr Bashir is accused of masterminding a counter-insurgency against rebel groups. The banning of the aid groups has left thousands of children on feeding programmes facing starvation, 1.5 million in people in the region are without basic healthcare, while 90,000 refugees have been left defenceless against a deadly meningitis outbreak in a single camp.Reuse content