Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir said Saturday that he refused a request by Kenya’s national air carrier to fly over its airspace on a direct Nairobi-Tel Aviv route, refuting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that Israel and Sudan had made headway on the issue.
“We received a request to use our airspace on the route to Tel Aviv. The request did not come from El Al, but from Kenya Airways — we refused,” al-Bashir reportedly said in an interview with a local Sudanese television network.
In December, Netanyahu said that Israel would “probably” be given permission to fly over Sudan, thus shaving two hours off direct flights to Latin America.
“Sudan will not be the first to normalize its relations with Israel, rather the latter” Bashir said, accusing it of fomenting unrest in his country.
Bashir, who has sought in recent weeks to fend off domestic unrest threatening his iron rule, accused the “Zionist lobby” in the West of backing an economic and diplomatic siege on Sudan, saying that Israel’s primary strength was its “ability to weaken its enemies.”
Israel and Sudan have never had any official diplomatic relations, and Israel has long been wary of the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation’s ties to Iran. But the two countries have reportedly been working behind-the-scenes towards normalizing ties as part of Netanyahu’s efforts to forge relations with the Arab world.
Israel’s drive to establish relations with Muslim-majority African nations including Sudan, Mali and Niger has reportedly been driven in part by Israel’s desire to slash air travel time to Latin America.
On Thursday, Bashir reportedly told a meeting with Sufi leaders in Khartoum that he had been “advised” to normalize ties with Israel to quell violent protests in the country sparked by a government decision to triple bread prices in response to shortages.
Sudan’s intelligence chief had earlier accused Israel of orchestrating the deadly protests.
Israel is considered a world leader in agriculture technology, and reportedly offered Sudan aid in the fields of medicine, agriculture and the economy in exchange for the establishment of relations between the two countries.
The protests across Sudan in recent weeks are the biggest threat to Bashir’s iron-fisted rule since he swept to power in a 1989 coup. The demonstrations, which have so far left 19 dead, have swelled into anti-government rallies with some protesters adopting the 2011 Arab Spring slogan “the people want the fall of the regime”.
Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges connected to a 15-year-old rebellion in the western region of Darfur, came to power in an Islamist-backed coup that toppled former prime minister Sadiq al-Madhi and his democratically elected government.
Analysts say Sudan’s involvement in numerous regional conflicts and a failure to boost agriculture in a country once renowned as a major grain producer have left its economy in shambles.
Bashir’s 26-year rule has seen the country slapped with sanctions over rights abuses and its support for Islamic extremists.
It is listed by the US government as a state-sponsor of terrorism.
Sudan has in the past assisted Israel’s enemies, having for years hosted a Hamas command center and a factory for long-range rockets for Palestinian militants, serving as a base for smuggling weapons into Gaza.
But in early 2017, Sudan — long one of Iran’s few Sunni Arab allies — severed ties with Tehran following its execution of a prominent Saudi Shia cleric.
The move was reportedly welcomed by Israel at the time as “in coherence with Israeli interests