CAIRO (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Sudan on Tuesday, the top U.S. official to visit the African country since last year's ouster of its autocratic leader, Omar al-Bashir.
Pompeo's visit on Tuesday is meant to discuss the normalization of ties between Sudan and Israel and also show U.S. support for the country's fragile transition to democracy.
Pompeo is also the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the African county since 2005, when Condoleezza Rice visited. Pompeo was also to discuss the removal of Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Pompeo arrived from Israel, and while he was still airborne, he tweeted: “Happy to announce that we are on the FIRST official NONSTOP flight from Israel to Sudan!”
Pompeo's flight was the first direct trip between Tel Aviv to Khartoum. He was in Israel Monday, the first stop of his multi-country tour in the region that came following the Aug. 13 agreement by Israel and the United Arab Emirates to establish diplomatic ties.
Pompeo emerged from the plane after landing at the Khartoum International Airport wearing a face mask as a protective measure against the coronavirus. His motorcade then left the airport, heading to meetings with Sudanese Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of the ruling sovereign council, and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
The State Department had said ahead of the tour that Pompeo would discuss “continued U.S. support for the civilian-led transitional government and express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship.”
In February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Gen. Burhan, during a trip to Uganda where they pledged to pursue normalization. The meeting was held secretly and only announced after it happened. It also paved the way for another first — two weeks after the meeting in Uganda, an Israeli aircraft made a historic first flight over Sudanese territory.
At the time of the Burhan-Netanyahu meeting, the Sudanese military said the talks with Israel were an effort to help end Sudan's status as an international pariah state.
Following a meeting with Hamdok on Monday, a coalition representing the protesters who helped topple al-Bashir last year, said in a statement that the transitional government “has no mandate” to decide on normalizing ties with Israel.
The coalition, known as Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change, also “emphasized the right of the Palestinian people to their land and the right of free and dignified life,” the statement said.
Sudan hosted the landmark Arab conference after the 1967 Mideast war where eight Arab countries approved the “three no's”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations.
But in recent years those hostilities have softened, and both countries have expressed readiness to normalize relations.
A Sudanese government official told The Associated Press last week that deliberations between Sudanese and Israeli officials have been going on for months, with the help from Egypt, the UAE and the U.S.
“It's a matter of time. We are finalizing everything. The Emirati move encouraged us and helped calm some voices within the government that were afraid of backlash from the Sudanese public,” the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. The UAE was the third Arab country to normalize ties with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan.
Sudan is now on a fragile path to democracy after the popular uprising led the military to overthrow al-Bashir in April 2019. A military-civilian government now rules the country, with elections deemed possible in late 2022.
The transitional authorities are desperate to lift sanctions linked to its listing by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terror. That would be a key step toward ending its isolation and rebuilding its battered economy that has plunged in recent months, threatening to destabilize the political transition.
Addressing the Sudanese on Saturday, the first anniversary of his appointment as prime minister, Hamdok said his government “has made great strides toward removing Sudan's name from this list.”
The designation dates back to the 1990s, when Sudan briefly hosted Osama bin Laden and other wanted militants. Sudan was also believed to have served as a pipeline for Iran to supply weapons to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Israel was thought to have been behind airstrikes in Sudan that destroyed a convoy in 2009 and a weapons factory in 2012.