KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan's president told thousands of cheering supporters Thursday an international call for his arrest on war crimes charges was a ploy by western nations set on grabbing the country's oil.
Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the first sitting president to be charged by the International Criminal Court, responded to his indictment over the conflict in the western Darfur region by ordering 10 foreign aid agencies to leave Sudan.
Authorities accused the aid groups of passing information to the ICC on alleged atrocities in Darfur, center of the world's largest humanitarian operation, and one aid official said at least three more agencies may be sent home.
The agencies expressed outraged, denying any links with the ICC and saying their expulsion put thousands of lives at risk.
Bashir said the Hague-based ICC was a tool of imperialists targeting Sudan for its oil, natural gas and other resources.
We have refused to kneel to colonialism, that is why Sudan has been targeted ... because we only kneel to God, he told a crowd outside the Republican Palace.
Cheers of We are ready to protect religion! and Down, down USA! from the protesters interrupted his speech. Washington has welcomed the ICC warrant.
Some in the crowd carried banners branding the court's prosecutor a criminal and after his speech Bashir, 65, danced along to nationalist songs, waving his cane in the air.
He earlier said the government would tackle any attack on stability. The ICC has no powers of arrest and relies on national police forces to hand suspects over.
We will deal responsibly and decisively with anybody who tries to target the stability and security of the country, Bashir told a meeting of top politicians Thursday.
China, a major investor in Sudan's oil which has sent peacekeepers to Darfur, urged the U.N. Security Council on Thursday to heed calls from African and Arab countries and suspend the case against Bashir.
The African Union (AU) said it would send a high-level delegation to press the Security Council to delay the indictment for a year to give the peace process in Darfur a chance.
Sudan expert Alex de Waal said the indictment could wreck delicately balanced peace efforts between north and south Sudan and in Darfur in his blog (http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/darfur/).
People were misguided if they thought the court would encourage Sudanese politicians to replace Bashir in a coup, or bring about a quick resolution to the Darfur conflict, he wrote, adding. I for one cannot see a political way out of this mess.
The ICC, set up in 2002 by international statute and not part of the U.N., indicted Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and torture.
Sudan revoked the licenses of several foreign aid agencies hours after the warrant was issued. Meinie Nicolai, Operational Director of Medecins Sans Frontieres based in Brussels, said MSF had been told it was being expelled for its own security.
We are outraged about the situation. It leaves thousands and thousands of people in Sudan without adequate medical care at the moment when meningitis is on the breakout, she said.
Hassabo Mohamed Abd el-Rahman, head of the government's Humanitarian Aid Commission, told Reuters some groups had passed evidence to the ICC and made false reports of genocide and rape. He said many agencies were being investigated.
MSF's Nicolai and Oxfam both denied any links with the ICC. The UK-based group said it was pulling international staff back to Khartoum and Darfur capitals while it appealed the decision.
International experts say at least 200,000 people have been killed in Darfur, a mainly desert region in western Sudan, while Khartoum says 10,000 have died.
A further 2.7 million people are estimated to have been uprooted by the conflict, which began when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government in 2003.
Darfur activist Hussein Abu Sharati, who says he represents residents of 158 displacement camps, said most people there were overjoyed by the ICC's decision, but were too scared to show it.
Other camp residents said most displaced Darfuris were staying in their shelters to avoid confronting security forces.
Inside people are happy, said a resident of Abu Shouk displacement camp in north Darfur, who asked not to be named. But everyone is keeping quiet. Nobody goes outside.
U.N. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the expulsions would have a devastating impact on Darfuris, adding that Sudanese security had already started taking computers and other assets from the agencies' offices in Khartoum and Darfur.
Embassies in Khartoum were on high alert, although Sudanese authorities have promised to protect them and embassy officials said Thursday's protest had dispersed peacefully.
(Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine in Cairo, Zimkhitha Sulelo in Johannesburg, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Barry Malone in Addis Ababa)
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)