N`Djamena: Chad reassured Sudan`s President Omar al-Beshir he had nothing to fear on Wednesday as he began a visit in defiance of an international warrant for his arrest for genocide and war crimes in Darfur.
The visit is Beshir`s first to a country that recognises the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has issued two warrants for Beshir.
The United States-led calls for Chad to meet its obligations to the court and arrest the Sudanese leader.
"We are in a new phase of the history of our two countries, in the interests of our two peoples," said Beshir, in Chad to take part in a meeting on Thursday of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) trade bloc.
"Together we have turned, with my brother Beshir, a sombre page in our history," added Chad`s President Idriss Deby Itno in an interview with Sudan`s public television.
Chadian officials defended their decision not to arrest Beshir.
"What country has ever arrested a sitting head of state? Beshir won`t be arrested in Chad," Interior Minister Ahmat Mahamat Bachir said.
"Chad is a sovereign and independent state.... We are not dependent on the injunctions of international organisations."
"Omar al-Beshir was invited to the summit in his capacity as president of a CEN-SAD member and he has nothing to worry about," added Chad`s Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat.
Chad is a signatory of the Rome Statute, the founding document of the ICC, obliging it to arrest any person on its territory wanted by the court.
The first ICC indictment against Beshir was issued in March 2009 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those charges were extended to genocide in a second warrant issued earlier this month.
Mahamat said Chad was following the position of the African Union in allowing Beshir to visit, a position agreed by the regional body after the initial ICC warrant was issued.
"Everybody is working for the resolution of the Darfur crisis. It is not the moment to add other charges to complicate the situation. Our priority is peace in Sudan," Mahamat said.
Neither the French ambassador in Chad nor the US charge d`affairs took part in the welcoming reception for Beshir at N’Djamena airport, although they were present for the earlier arrivals of the Somali and Comoran leaders.
A US State Department spokesman on Wednesday called on Chad to meet its ICC obligations, adding: "We leave it to the government of Chad to explain why it did or did not take actions related to those obligations."
The ICC itself said Chad had a responsibility to arrest Beshir. "All states that have ratified the Statute of Rome are obliged to co-operate with the court," ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdullah said.
Darfur has been gripped by a civil war since 2003 that has killed at least 300,000 people and left 2.7 million homeless according to the United Nations. Khartoum says 10,000 were killed.
"This is one of the saddest days for the people of Darfur, the people of Sudan and for justice," Abdelwahid Mahammed Nour, head of the Sudan Liberation Army, one of the two main rebel groups in Darfur, said.
Beshir`s visit drew criticism from human rights watchdogs.
"Chad should not shield President Beshir from international justice," Amnesty International legal advisor Christopher Hall said.
"His visit to Chad is an opportunity to enforce the arrest warrant and send a message that justice will prevail."
Human Rights Watch added: "Chad risks the shameful distinction of being the first ICC member state to harbour a suspected war criminal from the court."
Chad and Sudan agreed in February to normalise relations after five years of proxy war which saw N’Djamena backing Darfur rebels while Khartoum supported Chadian rebels hostile to Deby.
Deby made a landmark visit to Khartoum that month for the inauguration of Beshir`s new presidential term; it also expelled Khalil Ibrahim, who heads the Darfur rebel Justice and Equality Movement.
On Tuesday, three Chadian rebel leaders were expelled from Sudan.