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Out There News

Sudan: terrorist haven or propaganda victim?

By Paul Eedle 

KHARTOUM, May 11, Reuter - If you believe Western officials, Sudan has become a safe haven for Islamic terrorists intent on undermining Western interests from deepest Africa to the oilfields of the Gulf. If you believe the Moslem militants who have taken power in Khartoum since a military coup three years ago, Sudan is a victim of propaganda by Western powers which regard Islam as a threat to their neo-colonial influence. 

Hard facts to establish the truth are rare in this isolated, poverty-stricken city where telephones work intermittently, newspapers and television are strictly controlled and the security service is all-pervasive. Passion, prejudice and fear distort words and thoughts. 

Western diplomats say they have fragmentary but compelling evidence that members of a wide range of groups they regard as terrorist have been passing through Sudan. "What we see is blips on a screen," one senior envoy said. "What impressed us...was that suddenly after the Gulf War (in early 1991) these people seemed to be turning up here." 

He said groups detected included Lebanon's Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad, both sponsored by Iran and suspected of involvement in taking of Western hostages; Abu Nidal's Palestinian mercenaries, who have been associated with both Libya and Iraq; and Islamic extremists from Egypt."The best description is they use this as a safe haven," the diplomat said, adding that reports of training camps in the desert were probably fanciful but the groups could use Khartoum as a safe place to rest or a convenient point to contact sponsors or trainers. 

Sudan supported Iraq against a U.S.-led coalition of Western and Arab nations in the Gulf War. It provoked Western suspicion and anger just before fighting broke out by releasing five Abu Nidal men jailed for bomb attacks which killed five Britons in 1988. The diplomat said Iran's Revolutionary Guards had been supplying and training Sudan's Popular Defence Force, which the government has been building to supplement the regular army and instill an activist spirit into their young men. He added that the Iranian ambassador in Khartoum had been stationed in Beirut in 1983 when the Iranian mission there was suspected of helping to organise a suicide bombing that killed 241 U.S. marines. 

Hassan Tourabi, the learned and wily lawyer who leads the militants, and officials in both the government and the armed forces deny Western charges of links with terrorism. "There is absolutely no basis to most of their allegations, no basis of truth and it is just that they believe anything because they don't have a background to judge new information," Tourabi said in an interview. "They are so ignorant of this part of the world and of Islam itself." The spokesman for the armed forces, General Mohamed Abdullah Aweida, said: "America and France and the Arab world and the West know that there is not even one Iranian in the Sudanese armed forces. That is propaganda." 

There is no doubt, however, that the militants have established close links with Moslem radicals all over the world and have cultivated an ever-closer friendship with the revolutionary Islamic government in Iran. Tourabi is proud to explain that Sudan has become "a focus of interest for all Islamic movements" and "we know virtually all the workers for Islam in the world, in the West, in Asia, in Africa, the Arab world." 

Sudan and Iran have announced a $300 million a year trade deal under which Tehran will supply 25,000 barrels a day of crude oil in return for livestock and meat. Iranian revolutionary organisations have set up high-profile operations in Khartoum, such as the Martyrs' Foundation's large "Seal of the Prophets" medical centre. Businessmen report seeing Iranians in uniform staying at a luxury hotel recently.

There is also no doubt that Sudanese support for Islamic activists in other countries has included providing a passport to Rached Ghannouchi, whose Nahda movement in Tunisia was accused by the government of plotting a coup last year and ruthlessly dismantled by security forces. Irritated Western diplomats confirmed that the British embassy in Khartoum unwittingly issued Ghannouchi a visa after he applied using a Sudanese diplomatic passport with a misleading version of his name, supported by a letter from the Sudanese government. 

At heart, the truth may be a question of definition. One person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter and Tourabi is careful to explain that there are circumstances under which Moslems "are entitled to use force against force." He says he understands what he calls the excesses of the Iranian revolution and observes: "Now most Islamic movements have been radicalised a little bit by political persecution." So perhaps the safe haven for terrorists and the victim of propaganda may be the same place. It depends who's talking.