February 13, 2008 / 4:39 PM / 10 years ago

Darfur rebels praise Spielberg for Olympic pull-out

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Darfur’s splintered rebel groups on Wednesday united in praising U.S. film director Steven Spielberg for quitting as artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympics, and called for athletes to follow his lead.

Steven Spielberg waves at the Women in Film 2007 Crystal and Lucy Awards in Beverly Hills, California June 14, 2007. Spielberg withdrew on Tuesday as an artistic adviser to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing over China's policy on the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Spielberg withdrew on Tuesday, saying the competition’s hosts China should do more to persuade Sudan to end attacks and other humanitarian atrocities in Darfur.

Activists accuse Beijing of arming the Khartoum regime and funding it through oil revenues.

Lobby groups and celebrities led by Hollywood’s Mia Farrow have used this summer’s Olympics as a platform for their campaign to persuade Beijing to step up political pressure on Sudan.

No one was immediately available for comment from the Sudanese government.

But rebel groups welcomed Spielberg’s decision, saying it could shame Beijing into changing its stance on Darfur.

“It means a lot for someone like him to be doing this,” said spokesman for the insurgent Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) Ahmed Hussein Adam.

“This will send a message to other countries, other individuals and athletes, who haven’t taken a strong stance on Darfur up to now. We are calling on all countries to boycott the Olympics, athletes as well.”

Abdel Wahed Mohamed Ahmed al-Nur, Paris-based founder of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army, said individual competitors would have a huge impact if they publicly backed out.

“If there is an individual boycott from sportsmen and sportswomen, this will sabotage the Olympic Games ... It would help stop genocide,” he said.

Nur told Reuters that Spielberg had made a “noble move.” “He will certainly go down in history as someone who gave human lives precedence over fame and money.”

Ahmed Abdel Shafie, leader of an SLA faction, said Spielberg’s decision was “a wake-up call for the rest of the world.”

“This is a lesson that people should distance themselves from China. I hope that China will wake up and change its policy to Darfur,” he said.

“I send him my congratulations and the appreciation of the movement,” said Suleiman Jamous, a leading member of the SLA-Unity faction. “We appreciate that he has joined the right side of the conflict.”

International experts say almost five years of fighting, rape and looting in Sudan’s remote western Darfur region have killed 200,000 people and driven 2.5 million from their homes.

Government-backed militias have been blamed for much of the early humanitarian outrages. But rebel groups, who took up arms in 2003, have not escaped international criticism.

The U.N. imposed travel bans and asset freezes on two rebel leaders in 2006. The US has also imposed sanctions on JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim, saying his rebel group had been “responsible for a number of violent incidents.”

Darfur’s rebel groups splintered into numerous factions after a failed Darfur peace deal in 2006. Many of the larger groups have so far refused to take part in a fresh push for peace talks brokered by the U.N. and the African Union.

Editing by Giles Elgood

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