KHARTOUM - Sudanese citizens are criticizing the American representative to their country for dining with one of Sudan's most notorious warlords.
U.S. representative to Sudan, Charge D'Affaires Steven Koutsis, attended an Iftar meal to break the daily Ramadan fast on Saturday with Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, whose troops are accused of committing atrocities in Darfur and other areas, including as recently as this week.
Dagolo, known by his nickname 'Hemeti,' is the commander of the Rapid Support Forces militia. Previously, Hemeti was a commander of the Janjaweed militia, which is accused of committing genocide in Darfur more than a decade ago.
At the time, the U.S. led the international community in condemning the killings in Darfur and called for the perpetrators to face justice.
Koutsis and Hemeti broke the Ramadan fast together at the same table, with two people sitting between them. The event was organized by Sultan Ahmed Ali Dinar, the great-grandson of a Darfuri king.
During the ceremony, guests shouted praise for Hemeti and the RSF. A large banner hung behind a stage with Hemeti's photo on it.
Third time invited to Iftar
After the event, Koutsis explained to the Voice of America why he attended.
'I've come here every year since I've been here [in Khartoum] to support the Darfuri people,' Koutsis said. 'This is the third time I've come to this Iftar that is hosted by Sultan Ahmed Ali Dinar. So I was pleased to come here for the third time.'
Hemeti is also deputy chairman of Sudan's ruling military junta, which seized power in an April coup after the ouster of longstanding dictator Omar al-Bashir following months of street protests. Since then, thousands of protesters have camped out at a sit-in outside Khartoum's military headquarters, demanding Hemeti and the other generals hand power to a civilian government.
The United States has also repeatedly called for the junta to hand power to civilians.
During the past week, soldiers opened fire twice on protesters around the sit-in, causing hundreds of casualties, including several deaths. Protest leaders accused Hemeti's RSF of carrying out the attacks. The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum blamed the junta.
VOA asked Koutsis if it was appropriate for a representative of the United States to be at an event with a militia leader implicated in war crimes and the killings of protesters.
'I think it's appropriate for a representative of the U.S. to support the people of Darfur by being here,' he responded.
Koutsis said on Tuesday he visited some Sudanese people at Khartoum's Fedail Hospital who were wounded in a Monday attack on the protest sit-in. A week before the violence began, Koutsis attended an Iftar at the protest sit-in.
The incident with Hemeti has created confusion among Sudanese as to whether Washington supports the protesters calling for a civilian government or the military leaders who took power.
Speaking to VOA, Adeeb Yousif a Darfuri academic at Washington's George Mason University, said Koutsis' participation in the dinner has made some Darfuris 'really angry.'
Yousif said it was painful to see Koutsis 'sitting together with Hemeti [who is] considered to be the perpetrator of killing those innocent children and wounding many of them [this week].'
Yousif said he did not support the U.S. Embassy leader attending the dinner, saying his presence gave legitimacy to Hemeti.
Yousif questioned Koutsis' reasoning for attending the event. He said this year is 'totally different' from the two years prior, due to Sudan's ongoing political upheaval.
He further said the meal cannot be taken as a way of supporting people of Darfur. He said he believes Sultan Ahmed Ali Dinar is a businessman linked to Bashir's old regime and is not a credible representative of Darfuris.
'His great grand-grandfather was the king of the area, and there's nobody (who) can deny,' Yousif said. 'But for him, I don't think he has any supporters in Darfur apart of his family and those who are benefiting from his business.'
Idriss Haroun, a Darfuri who saw family members killed during the alleged genocide in Darfur in 2004 and has lived in a displaced person's camp since, also rejected the Sultan.
'We are happy the American ambassador (charge d'affaires) is leading pressure against the military council to hand the government to civilians,' Haroun said, speaking to VOA from a tent at the protest sit-in in Khartoum. 'We thank him for that. But, if he went to the Iftar in solidarity with Hemeti and the Sultan, then he is the same as Hemeti and the Sultan. All of them are killers.'
Saudi Arabia was the only other country with a representative at Hemeti's event.
Hemeti has sent RSF troops to fight with the Saudis in the war in Yemen, a conflict in which all sides are accused of atrocities. Hemeti is also accused of sending child soldiers among his troops in Yemen.
At the Iftar, Hemeti's security detail included at least one child soldier.