- As Western powers are pushing for UN sanctions against Sudan, new allegations of chemical weapons use by Khartoum authorities are emerging. The allegations are made by a conservative German daily and Norwegian "humanitarian organisation" openly supporting Sudanese rebels. German and Norwegian government authorities however question these reports.
In Germany, the conservative daily 'Die Welt' yesterday published an article titled "Syria is testing chemical weapons on Sudanese." As its sources, the newspaper quotes "material from Western intelligence services that at 'Die Welt's' disposal," which was "supported by eyewitness reports published in several Arab media."
The article in 'Die Welt' reports that Syrian and Sudanese military authorities in a meeting in Khartoum in May this year agreed on a deepened cooperation, in particular regarding chemical weapons. They reportedly agreed to test Syrian weapons on villages in Darfur, and the Arab website 'Ilaf' allegedly on 2 August reported about large numbers of people in a Khartoum hospital treated for suspicious injuries by Syrian doctors.
The German newspapers' report quickly was quoted by major news agencies and published today by media throughout the world. Reports by the German leftist journal 'Der Spiegel' - where German intelligence officers said they did not believe the "rumours" that have "existed since January or February" - were given less international publicity. German intelligence suspected "Sudanese exile groups" to have fabricated the story.
At the same time, in Oslo (Norway), the state broadcaster 'NRK' published interviews with the Sudan expert of the Norwegian Peoples' Aid (NPA), saying Darfuri civilians had told him their villages had been attacked with chemical weapons. During the day, NRK news spots concluded that the Khartoum government had attacked Darfuri civilians with chemical weapons.
Ivar Christiansen, the NPA Sudan expert that had visited Darfur one month ago, however told afrol News a different story. In Darfur's central Jebel Marra Mountains, Mr Christiansen had visited three almost depopulated villages. Here, the so-called "humanitarian spokesman" of the Darfuri SLA rebels had approached him with several persons he claimed to be civilians of nearby villages. During the following talks, all translations had been made by the SLA representative.
- They begged us to go with them to their villages, where people had died in peculiar ways, indicating the use of chemical weapons, Mr Christiansen told afrol News. The alleged Darfuri villagers wanted the NRA representatives to take blood samples of the dead to collect proof of a chemical weapons attack. After consulting Norwegian military headquarters in Oslo, Mr Christiansen said, he had decided not to go as taking the blood samples out of Sudan "would be illegal."
Mr Christiansen says he thus has no proof of the allegations. Asked whether he personally finds the SLA-translated eyewitness reports credible, he recalls an NRA statement of July 1999, accusing Khartoum of using chemical weapons against the Southern Sudan SPLA rebels. "If this happened in 1998 and in 2004, it makes me reflect whether it also has gone on in between," the NRA Sudan expert comments.
Indeed, the NRA is the first-ever source alleging Khartoum's use of chemical weapons against its own population. In a press release, it even stated that "chemical bombing" in Southern Sudan had been "confirmed". The allegations led Khartoum to invite a UN investigation team, which concluded there was "no evidence of exposure to chemicals" among the people allegedly victimised.
The NRA's 1999 press release indeed created international waves. Karsten Klepsvik, the spokesman of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, told afrol News that Norway's Development Minister Hilde Frafjord Johnson at that time took the NRA allegations "very seriously", reporting it to international bodies and pushing Khartoum to let the UN investigate the allegations. Mr Klepsvik underlines that no proof was however found.
According to Mr Christiansen, however, proof in 1999 was not decisive. While UN researchers concluded against the use of chemical weapons, "a parallel investigation in a Dutch laboratory" had concluded that there were poisonous elements in the blood samples that "could have been tear gas or nerve gases," Mr Christiansen claims.
Further investigations urged by the NRA had however been "stopped by Minister Frafjord Johnson," the NRA representative says, claiming this was because the Oslo government at that time was involved in the IGAD peace process between Khartoum and SPLA, "and did not want negative publicity." When afrol News asks Mr Christiansen whether this rejection by Ms Frafjord Johnson came at about the same time as the Minister's publishing of a report highly critical of NRA's role in Sudan, he answers confirming.
It had just been exposed that the NRA was working tightly with the SPLA, actively undermining the Khartoum regime. The Norwegian Ministry of Development had published a report saying that NPA reporting to donors and the media were "imprecise and full of wrongful information." The government report concluded that NPA had been "primarily interested in aiding the [SPLA] rebels' military progress" instead of providing humanitarian aid.
Mr Christiansen today confirmed to afrol News that the NPA still "openly supports the SPLM," the political wing of the SPLA, and South Sudan's "rights to obtain autonomy, practice its own religion and manage its own resources." The pro-SPLM group however was trying to improve ties with Khartoum and is seeking permission to establish itself as an NGO in government-controlled areas, Mr Christensen underlined.
The NRA has repeatedly been accused of "smearing campaigns" and "propaganda exercises" against Khartoum by Sudanese officials. If Khartoum is to be believed, the NRA's "campaign" has been quite effective. Speculations around Khartoum's use of chemical weapons have surfaced many times after 1999, always being based on the NRA's statement that was rejected by UN researchers. As the UN Security Council is currently discussing Sudan sanctions, new NRA claims could not have come at a worse moment for Khartoum.
There have also been reports questioning the funding and ethics of NRA lately. The Norwegian group NorWatch in April this year disclosed that NRA was clearing mines in Iran on behalf of the Norwegian oil giant Norsk Hydro, while refusing to clear mines in nearby areas used by Iranian civilians. The NRA's financing by oil companies is seen as problematic regarding its operations in Sudan, where the many conflicts are fuelled by oil interests. Presently, only minor Norwegian oil companies are present in Sudan, according to Oslo government sources.
Mr Klepsvik from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry told afrol News that the Oslo government presently had no concrete plans to launch an investigation into NRA's claims, as it did in 1999. "We only have this information from the media," says Mr Klepsvik. If a more serious inquiry reached the Ministry, its experts "would have to look into it to establish the facts," he added. Asked whether the NRA's credibility had been hurt by previous allegations, the Norwegian diplomat however said, no, "That was way back, in 1999."
The Sudanese government since 1999 categorically has denied having or using chemical weapons. The Khartoum government has signed and ratified (May 1999) the Chemical Weapons Convention, outlawing any such weapons. The United States in 1998 bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan claiming it produced weapons. These claims have not been repeated by any foreign government after this bombing - widely understood as an error.
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