US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Sudan Tuesday on a tour urging more Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel, following the US-brokered Israel-UAE agreement.
Pompeo, the first American top diplomat to visit Sudan since 2005, arrived on a historic "first official non-stop flight" from Tel Aviv, he tweeted from the plane.
Israel remains technically at war and has no formal diplomatic relations with Sudan, which for years supported hardline Islamist forces under its former strongman Omar al-Bashir.
But its new transitional government has vowed to break with the Bashir era following his ouster last year amid popular pro-democracy protests.
Pompeo was to meet Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Sovereign Council Chair General Abdel Fattah el-Burhan to discuss continued US support for the civilian-led transitional government "and express support for deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship," the State Department said.
Sudan, which has launched sweeping social and political reforms, now hopes Washington will soon take it off its blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism as it seeks to fully re-integrate into the international community.
Closer ties with US ally Israel would help, and both sides have already taken a series of steps, muddied however by mixed messaging from Sudan.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Burhan in Uganda in February and later announced that the two leaders had agreed to cooperate towards normalising ties.
Sudan's cabinet later denied that Burhan had made such a promise, which remains highly controversial in much of the Arab world.
More recently, Sudan's foreign ministry spokesman Haider Badawi said he was in favour of such an accord, but foreign minister Omar Gamaledinne then said the issue had "never been discussed by the Sudanese government" and promptly fired the spokesman.
The coalition of parties and civil society groups which led the protest movement, the Forces of Freedom and Change, argued Tuesday that the government has "no mandate" to normalise ties with Israel, pointing to "the right of Palestinians to their land and to a free and dignified life".
Thawing US relations
Pompeo's regional trip, also taking in Bahrain and the UAE, comes in the wake of the landmark August 13 announcement of a normalisation of relations between the Emirates and the Jewish state.
Speaking in Jerusalem on Monday, both Pompeo and Netanyahu said that they were hopeful that other Arab states would follow suit -- in part to boost an alliance against their common arch foe Iran.
Sudan has been under US sanctions for decades because of the presence of Islamists, including Osama bin Laden, who lived there for years in the 1990s before heading to Afghanistan.
While the US lifted a 20-year trade embargo against Sudan in October 2017, it kept the country on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Khartoum has been lobbying hard to have that designation lifted.
Sudan has been in talks on compensating victims of Bashir-era Al-Qaeda attacks, including the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen and the simultaneous 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Since January Washington has upgraded its diplomatic representation in Khartoum from the level of charge d'affaires to posting an ambassador.
The Pompeo visit comes as Sudan is in deep economic crisis -- having suffered decades-long US sanctions and the 2011 secession of the country's oil-rich south.
Grappling with high inflation and the coronavirus pandemic, the country badly needs to attract more foreign aid and investment
The United Nations says more than 9.6 million people -- almost a quarter of Sudan's population -- is suffering severe food insecurity.
"They are extremely keen to have US sanctions lifted and they are under heavy UAE influence," said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
While Bashir is on trial over the Islamist-backed coup that brought him to power over three decades ago, the new transitional government in Khartoum is at pains to distance itself from his legacy.
It has agreed in principle to hand Bashir over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his role in the Darfur conflict on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Conflict broke out in the Darfur region in 2003 when ethnic minority rebels staged an uprising against the government, citing marginalisation and discrimination.
Khartoum responded by unleashing the feared Janjaweed militia, mainly recruited from Arab pastoralist tribes, in a scorched earth campaign that left 300,000 people dead and displaced 2.5 million.
Hamdok has made finding a peace deal with rebel groups a priority, in order to bring stability to restive regions that also include Blue Nile and South Kordofan.