KHARTOUM: The US special envoy for Sudan met opposition leaders in Khartoum on Thursday in a bid to save April’s elections, threatened by the pullout of President Omar Al-Beshir’s main challenger and an opposition boycott.
Scott Gration, who flew in on Wednesday according to diplomatic sources, met separately with Umma party members, Islamist leader Hassan Al-Turabi and Democratic Unionist Party head Mohammed Osman Al-Mirghani.
The envoy, who made no comment to reporters after his initial contacts, was expected to hold marathon negotiations in the Sudanese capital on the elections and on the fate of the war-torn region of Darfur in western Sudan.
The mission comes a day after presidential hopeful Yassir Arman pulled out of April 11-13 vote for fear of fraud, casting doubt on the electoral process and clearing the way for a likely first-round win by Beshir.
"The Americans came to see if they can save the (electoral) process because they want a fair and more credible election," said Mubarak Al-Fadil, Umma’s presidential candidate, after talks with the US envoy.
The move from Arman, candidate of the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) from the south of the country, came after Beshir ruled out deferring the first multi-party Sudanese polls in 24 years.
"I took the decision to withdraw for two reasons. Firstly, after having campaigned in Darfur, I realized that it was impossible to hold elections there due to the current state of emergency," Arman told AFP early Thursday.
"Secondly, there are irregularities in the electoral process which is rigged."
He said however that the SPLM will present candidates to regional and legislative elections "across Sudan, except for Darfur".
"Beshir will be the only one. I don’t think any other credible candidate will take the decision to run against him," Arman said.
Arman, 49, a secular Muslim from north Sudan, was selected in January by his former rebel group to challenge Beshir in April’s presidential election and was regarded as a leading candidate.
His withdrawal means Beshir is assured of re-election in the first round of voting, unless the opposition parties, which meet on Thursday to decide whether to boycott the election, can come up with a single candidate.
On Monday, Arman accused Beshir and his party of trying to tamper with the polls, after a contract to print ballots went to a state-owned press.
"The opposition heavyweights will boycott the presidential election," Fadil said.
But the Popular Congress Party led by Turabi, who was once a mentor to Beshir but has become one of his fiercest critics, said it planned to participate.
"Our party will engage in the presidential (election)…at all levels," Turabi said after meeting Gration.
For his part, the DUP’s Mirghani said he was still mulling his decision, local press reported.
Human Rights Watch has said Sudanese government repression of its opponents and the media was threatening the chances of the elections being "free, fair, and credible".
Britain — Sudan’s former colonial power — and Norway, a main provider of aid, joined the United States in expressing concern on Wednesday over the polls.
"We urge all parties in Sudan to work urgently to ensure that elections can proceed peacefully and credibly in April," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store said.
"We are deeply concerned by reports of continued administrative and logistical challenges, as well as restrictions on political freedoms," they said.
Under a 2005 agreement that ended a 22-year north-south civil war, mostly Christian and animist southern Sudan obtained the right to hold a referendum in January 2011 on whether to break away from the Muslim-majority north.
Beshir has made it clear, however, that unless the SPLM participates in the April elections, the referendum — which the southerners believe will deliver their independence — will not go ahead.