KHARTOUM - Sudan has agreed to compensate the families of sailors killed in an al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole warship 20 years ago, state news agency SUNA said on Thursday, part of government efforts to remove the country from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Observers and Sudanese officials have said that the settlement with the USS Cole victims was among the last hurdles faced by Sudan on its path to being removed from the US blacklist.
The report said the settlement had been signed on Feb. 7. It did not mention the amount paid in compensation, but a source with knowledge of the deal, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Sudan had agreed to settle the case for $30 million.
Sudan's information minister and interim government spokesman, Faisal Saleh, told AP news agency that Justice Minister Nasr-Eddin Abdul-Bari had traveled last week to Washington to sign the deal that included compensations for both the wounded and the killed.
He said the figures could not be disclosed because the Sudanese government is still in the middle of negotiations to reach a similar settlement with families of victims of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"Our lawyer advised us not to disclose the figures because that might affect our ongoing negotiations," Saleh said. He said, however, that the American side is free to disclose the amount if it wishes to do so.
Saleh added that Washington has set the overhaul of the country's security apparatus as another condition to remove Sudan from the terror list.
“The Americans believe the Sudan's support for terror was carried out through its security apparatus,” he said. “So they want to be assured that there has been a radical change" in the way it operates.
At the time of the Oct. 12, 2000 attack in the Yemeni port of Aden that killed 17 sailors and wounded more than three dozen others, Sudan was accused of providing support to al-Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the attack. The sailors were killed when two men in a small boat detonated explosives alongside the Navy guided missile destroyer as it was refueling.
Khartoum agreed to settle "only for the purpose of fulfilling the condition set by the US administration to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism", SUNA said, citing the justice ministry.
Being designated as a state sponsor of terrorism makes Sudan ineligible for desperately needed debt relief and financing from lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Removal from the list potentially opens the door for foreign investment.
For Sudan, having the sanctions lifted would be a key step toward ending its isolation and rebuilding the economy after the popular uprising last year that toppled longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir and installed a joint civilian-military sovereign council to oversee the country's political transition.
"The government of Sudan would like to point out that the settlement agreement explicitly affirmed that the government was not responsible for this incident or any terrorist act," the justice ministry said in its statement, cited by SUNA.
Sudan's transitional council denies the country was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole, and say they negotiated the settlement out of their "keenness to resolve old terror claims inherited from the ousted regime" of al-Bashir.
The announcement comes two days after Khartoum and rebel groups agreed that all those wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and genocide in the Darfur region should appear before the tribunal. The list includes al-Bashir.
It is not clear when the 76-year-old al-Bashir could be handed over to the court in The Hague, Netherlands. He faces three counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his alleged role in leading the deadly crackdown on a rebel insurgency in Darfur. The indictments were issued in 2009 and 2010, marking the first time the global court had charged a suspect with genocide.
The US sailors' relatives had sued Sudan under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which generally bars suits against foreign countries except those designated by the United States as a sponsor of terrorism, as Sudan has been since 1993.
Sudan did not defend against the claims in court. In 2014, a trial judge found that Sudan's aid to al-Qaeda "led to the murders" of the 17 Americans and awarded the families about $35 million, including $14 million in punitive damages.
Sudan then tried to void the judgment, arguing the lawsuit was not properly served on its foreign minister, violating notification requirements under US and international law. The US Supreme Court turned down the bid by the families last year.