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In landmark boost, Trump says will delist Sudan as sponsor of terror

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Washington (AFP)

President Donald Trump said Monday he was ready to remove Sudan from a US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, a landmark boost for the civilian-backed government as it turns the page on the nation's decades as an international pariah.

Trump said that Sudan, which has sought the delisting for years, had agreed to a $335 million compensation package for victims and relatives of past attacks.

"At long last, JUSTICE for the American people and BIG step for Sudan!" Trump wrote on Twitter.

He said of the compensation agreement: "Once deposited, I will lift Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list."

US officials did not immediately respond to requests for further details including on a timeframe.

Sudan is one of four nations branded by Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism along with Iran, North Korea and Syria -- severely impeding economic development, with few major foreign investors willing to run afoul of US laws.

Sudan was designated in 1993 during the rule of dictator Omar al-Bashir, who welcomed Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in the 1990s as he imposed a brand of political Islamism on the country.

The conflict-ridden nation experienced a historic shift last year as Bashir was ousted in the face of youth-led street protests and a civilian-backed transitional government was later installed.

Trump's announcement marks "the strongest support to Sudan's transition to democracy and to the Sudanese people," said Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, a reform-minded economist and face of the government that will rule until 2022 elections.

"As we're about to get rid of the heaviest legacy of Sudan's previous, defunct regime, I should reiterate that we are peace-loving people and have never supported terrorism," he said on Twitter.

- Questions over package -

While Trump has authority on his own to remove Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, both the administration and lawmakers have been seeking a package that would compensate victims and families over anti-US attacks traced back to Sudanese soil.

More than 200 people died in twin Al-Qaeda bombings in 1998 of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Then president Bill Clinton responded with a still disputed missile strike on a pharmaceutical factory on Khartoum's outskirts.

The draft $335 million package had divided Congress, with some Democrats concerned that it would provide more money to US citizens than Africans, who made up the bulk of the victims.

Other lawmakers sought further discussion on compensation by other attacks by Al-Qaeda, notably the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen.

Still in question is whether Congress is ready to pass legislation to grant Sudan immunity from further claims -- an indispensable step for the developing country if it commits the hefty $335 million.

Sudan had long been the target of international pressure campaigns, including over Bashir's scorched-earth campaign in Darfur that the United States described as genocide.

With the country's dramatic changes, some of the same activists have pushed for the removal from the terror blacklist.

"In order to support the transition to a fully civilian-led democracy, Congress must now pass legislation to restore Sudan's sovereign immunity and end its longstanding status as a pariah state," said John Prendergast, who alongside actor and activist George Clooney had founded The Sentry, a project that seeks to cut off dirty money that fuels conflict in Africa.

- Push on Israel -

The Trump administration, seeing leverage as it eyed removing the designation, has also leaned on Sudan to normalize relations with Israel, following the lead last month of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

With US elections in two weeks, another landmark Arab recognition of Israel would be hailed by Trump's evangelical Christian base, which staunchly backs the Jewish state.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the issue in August on the first visit in 15 years by the top US diplomat to Khartoum.

But Hamdok demurred on the controversial step, saying the transitional government did not have authority to normalize with Israel.

Sudan's top general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in February held a landmark meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda.

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