MURSI SNUGGLES UP TO HAGEL – who commits to £1billion of aid annually

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IN talks with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, President Mursi on Wednesday reaffirmed Cairo’s commitment to its peace treaty with Israel and voiced appreciation for Hagel’s promise to continue US military aid with more than a billion dollars in annual payments to Egypt.

A statement by the US embassy in Cairo said that during Hagel’s visit, ‘Egyptian leaders reiterated their commitment to Egypt’s international obligations, including the Peace Treaty with Israel.’

Hagel and his counterparts also discussed deteriorating security, with the Egyptians pledging to deter militant elements.

Hagel came to the Middle East touting a major arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates designed to bolster America’s partners as a counterweight to Iran.

After meeting General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, and President Mohamed Mursi, Hagel said he came to express America’s ‘commitment to Egypt’s emerging democracy’ and ‘encourage the democratic and economic reforms that are under way here’.

He praised the Egyptian military ‘for the responsible role it has played during a difficult period in the country’, said a senior US defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hagel later met Mursi, elected in June as the country’s first Islamist and civilian president, before flying to the United Arab Emirates.

Washington has increasingly adopted a critical tone towards Mursi’s government over allegations the Islamists have stifled opposition figures and media.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who promised to unlock aid to Cairo during a visit in March, said this month that Washington had ‘real concerns’ about Egypt’s course.

But US officials said: ‘Security ties cultivated over decades between the two countries have survived the revolution and that America’s military leaders still have a direct channel to Egypt’s powerful top brass.’

‘Annual US-Morocco war games, cancelled by Rabat over a Washington-backed plan for the UN’s Western Sahara mission, have resumed on a smaller scale after a compromise was reached,’ the US embassy said.

‘The Moroccan government did ask us if we could resume African Lion,’ embassy spokesman Rodney Ford said.

‘Most of our forces had already redeployed. But some elements are still on the ground. So we are conducting modified, limited military engagements,’ he said.

‘Aerial training, refuelling and workshops were among the resumed activities,’ he added.

The US army was to conduct the ‘African Lion 2013’ joint military exercises with Morocco from April 7-27, involving 1,400 personnel from US Africa Command, AFRICOM, and 900 members of the Moroccan armed forces.

But it began withdrawing troops and equipment last week amid disagreement over a plan to broaden the Western Sahara peacekeeping force’s mandate to include rights monitoring in the disputed territory and in Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.

The US proposal triggered a furious lobbying campaign by Morocco, which called off the war games in a clear sign of Rabat’s displeasure.

Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in the 1970s, and proposes broad autonomy for the phosphate-rich region under its sovereignty.

But this is rejected by the Polisario, which insists on the right of Sahrawis to decide in a UN-monitored referendum whether or not they want independence.

‘The US are ready to receive a senior envoy from Sudan in a bid to push forward the country’s peace process,’an official said.

‘The United States invited a delegation led by an aide to President Omar al-Beshir, Nafie Ali Nafie, after he voiced an interest in travelling to Washington,’ said Larry Andre, the top State Department official on Sudan.

Andre said that the exact date has not been scheduled and that the United States has told Sudan that it would use the trip for a ‘candid discussion’ on conflicts within the country and on ‘human rights and other concerns’.

Andre continued: ‘The trip plans came in light of the start of peace talks in Ethiopia between Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, which is waging an insurgency in two states near newly independent South Sudan.’

The United States maintains contact with rebel groups and Nafie is seen as playing a role in negotiations in the vast African country, where a separate conflict in Darfur was declared genocide by the US.

‘We do not view this visit as a reward, but as a continuation of a dialogue on issues of concern to the US government,’ Andre said.

‘While we welcome recent steps by the government of Sudan to make progress in implementing its agreements with South Sudan and to start direct talks with the SPLM-N, we will make clear that we expect real and sustained progress on these issues and others, including Darfur,’ he said.

Talks between the US and Sudan are rare in Washington, although US officials have travelled to Khartoum.

Representative Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, who has long been active on human rights in Sudan, denounced the invitation and cited charges that Nafie was personally involved in human rights abuses.

‘With Darfur worsening and continued indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the Nuba mountains displacing thousands, why would your administration reward Khartoum with an invitation to Washington? Specifically, why would you reward the likes of Nafie Ali Nafie?’ Wolf wrote.

Tom Andrews, president of the advocacy group ‘United to End Genocide’ and a former Democratic Congressman from Maine, said ‘Sudan has made false promises in the past’ and that ‘thousands of people have been newly displaced in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states’.

‘Truly substantive progress should be seen before members of the regime are welcomed to the United States,’ he said.

Andre, the State Department official, said: ‘The US refused to deal with Beshir and other Sudanese indicted by the International Criminal Court.’

Sudan voiced hope for a better relationship with the US after it allowed South Sudan to become independent in 2011 following decades of war.

Advocacy groups have voiced concern that residents of South Kordofan and Blue Nile are facing extreme hunger due to indiscriminate bombing by Sudan, which has impeded agriculture.