The leopard-skin shoe dictator who holds the key to Darfur

Sudan's President gives no ground to EU over stricken province where 300,000 have died
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The Independent Online

He is a military hardman, an enemy of the White House and the man who holds the key to solving the humanitarian disaster in Darfur. But as visitors to his presidential residence discovered last week, Omar al-Bashir also wears leopard-skin shoes.

Sudan's President is at the centre of a diplomatic stand-off over the Darfur crisis as he refuses to admit a United Nations peacekeeping force to the northern Sudanese province, where about 300,000 people have died and another 2.5 million have been driven from their homes. On Friday a letter from Sudan's government described such an idea as a "hostile act" and a "prelude to invasion", prompting Washington to call for emergency consultations at the UN Security Council.

Such language is hardly out of character for one of Africa's most oppressive leaders. In recent weeks he has dismissed Western peace protests as being "organised by Zionist, Jewish organisations", and suggested that human rights groups "have exaggerated the crisis in Darfur to help their fundraising". And an encounter in Khartoum last week showed Mr Bashir is willing to have a dialogue with the West only on his own terms.

For the European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, the encounter was not without risk of embarrassment, since Mr Bashir cancels meetings without notice. Even those that go ahead are not always smooth; diplomats and journalists accompanying Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, were manhandled by Sudanese security staff at the presidential residence last year.

Nevertheless, just after 10pm, Mr Barroso was admitted to the one-storey villa. Inside the reception room, Mr Bashir was seated, wearing white robes and head-dress. But what drew the eyes of his visitors was the black and gold footwear peeping out from beneath a table that had come from what used to be a living leopard.

Almost two hours of talks prompted several conclusions. While his country is strictly Muslim and Mr Bashir came to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, he is no ideologue. Like the ex-soldier he is, he moved straight on to business: a full verbal assault on the USA.

That the Sudanese president is virulently anti-American is not surprising, since a US cruise missile strike in 1998 took out one of Sudan's pharmaceutical factories. Few now believe America's claim that the building was making chemical weapons for Osama bin Laden.

For Mr Bashir the UN and the US are interchangeable. Any international military intervention would, he argues, be a prelude to Iraq-style invasion. But for all his rhetoric, he appears to yearn for international respectability. Diplomats believe his greatest fear is that he could end up in the International Criminal Court, accused of responsibility for genocide in Darfur.

The Sudanese President sees himself as having been victimised by Washington, despite offering it some limited support over terrorism. Bin Laden was banned from Sudan in 1996 and Mr Bashir condemned the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

One possible motive for Sudan blocking the admission of a UN force is the belief that Sudanese government forces are having some success in Darfur. Another is that the conflict strengthens his political position.

Given Sudan's clear rejection of a UN force, the EU is pressing Mr Bashir to allow the UN to beef up a 7,000-strong, poorly equipped African Union force already in Darfur. But most diplomats believe that even a reinforced AU mission would have little real impact.

Evidently, that is of little concern to Mr Bashir. As for his leopard-skin shoes, they are not so much a fashion statement as an item of traditional Sudanese dress. What's more, most pairs come from Darfur.