Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrived in Eritrea Monday on his first foreign trip since the issue of an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes, Eritrea's information minister said.
"It is a one-day visit, it's a very normal visit from one president to another. He is responding to an invitation by President Issaias Afeworki," Ali Abdu told AFP by phone from Asmara.
The Eritrean president had invited Bashir on March 11 to express solidarity with the Sudanese president, seven days after the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued its warrant accusing Bashir of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.
"The drama being orchestrated by the so-called ICC amply demonstrates the anti-people stance and defamatory conspiracy on the part of external forces," the Eritrean government said in its invitation.
"Eritrea sees the decision by the ICC as irresponsible and as an insult to the intelligence of African countries," Abdu said Monday.
Case by case evaluation
Mutrif Siddig, under-secretary at the Sudanese foreign ministry, said Bashir had accepted the Eritrean invitation and would be returning to Sudan later on Monday.
"If we felt there was a risk we would not have allowed him to travel. But we felt that he was safe," Siddig said. "Whenever this situation comes up again (travel abroad), we will evaluate the situation on a case by case basis."
Like Sudan, the government in Asmara has frosty ties with Western states, notably the United States.
Many African and Arab states along with key ally China have condemned the ICC move and called for the warrant to be suspended.
Bashir faces five counts of crimes against humanity and two of war crimes. He is the first sitting president to be issued with a warrant by the ICC.
Bashir's visit to Eritrea had not been announced in the Sudanese media, even those close to the government were unaware of his travel plans.
Crossing own borders
On Sunday, Sudanese media said the country's highest religious authority, the Committee of Muslim Scholars, issued a fatwa urging Bashir not to travel to the March 29-30 Arab summit in Doha.
The ICC does not have a police force and therefore calls on signatory states to implement warrants.
Eritrea has not ratified the Rome Statute which set up the court, although as a member of the United Nations it is urged to cooperate with the court.
"This looks like a symbolic act -- to show he can do it. It is not that significant in itself," said Fouad Hikmat, an analyst for the Nairobi-based International Crisis Group.
"He is just crossing one of his country's own borders, visiting a neighbor who doesn't really have dealings with the international community," he said, adding:
"The real question is whether he will be able to cross international air space to visit Qatar," he said.
Appeals for Bashir
Besides the possibility of his arrest in Qatar, some officials in Sudan fear that Bashir's presidential jet could be intercepted by other states once out of Sudanese airspace.
According to some Sudanese commentators, appeals for Bashir not to travel offer the president a face-saving way out of the ICC bind.
The Arab League and African Union, backed by China and Russia, called on the U.N. Security Council to use its power to suspend the ICC indictment of Bashir.
The United States, Britain and France said they see no point in halting his prosecution.
International experts say at least 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2.7 million driven from their homes in almost six years of fighting in Darfur, a mainly desert region in western Sudan. Khartoum says 10,000 people have died.