Remembering El Shifa

Print edition : November 04, 2005

ON August 20, 1998, the United States targeted the El Shifa pharmaceutical factory located in a Khartoum suburb with Tomahawk cruise missiles. The attack came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar-es-Salam (Tanzania). The then U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, justified the attack by saying that the factory, which produced 90 per cent of essential medicines and drugs needed in the domestic market, was capable of producing nerve gas. U.S. administration officials even claimed that the soil sample from outside the plant contained traces of a substance used in the production of the lethal VX nerve gas.

There were also unsubstantiated allegations that the "real" owner of the factory was Osama bin Laden. Osama and the Al Qaeda had by then gained considerable notoriety in the West. The Americans blamed bin Laden for the bombings of their Embassies. Bin Laden had left Sudan in 1996. During his brief stay in Sudan, he was by all accounts engaged in legitimate business activities. Interestingly, Henry Jobe, an American employee of MSD Pharmaceutical Company, designed the El Shifa factory. Many important dignitaries, including heads of state, had visited the factory, which was built at a cost of over $100 million. The British Ambassador to Khartoum was one of the distinguished visitors. The factory was described in the Sudanese and Arab media as "the pride of Africa".

THE factory, which was reduced to rubble in the attack, remains a mute testimony to U.S. high-handedness in international affairs. The Sudanese authorities have left the rubble untouched. Parts of the missiles can be still seen strewn around along with the remnants of the plant machinery.

Meanwhile, in the past seven years, not a shred of evidence has been produced to substantiate the initial allegations made by the Clinton administration. Sudan's only ostensible crime was that it had refused to succumb to U.S. diktats at that time, notably on matters relating to the first Gulf War. The factory exported medicines to the beleaguered people of Iraq, under the United Nations Oil for Food Programme. When the attack occurred, the U.S. was not at war with Sudan and this makes the action indefensible under international law.

In the third week of September, Sudan renewed its call to the U.N. Security Council to punish the country responsible for the attack on El Shifa. "The attack has damaged the development efforts of my country and deprived my people of basic medicines," former Sudanese Foreign Minister Mostafa Osman Ismail told the U.N. world summit in mid-September. "Today, from this rostrum, we reiterate our call to the United Nations to take the necessary and just measures within the framework of international law as a whole to support this just and legitimate demand," he said.

Although Sudan continues to be on the U.S. State Department's list of countries "sponsoring terrorism", security officials from the two countries enjoy close relations these days. However, the U.S. has shown no inclination either to pay compensation to the victims of the attack or to rebuild the plant. The only concession made by Washington so far has been the de-freezing of the assets of the company's owner, Salah Idris. Idris had moved a U.S. court on the issue. The Clinton administration knew that it could not defend the indefensible in a U.S. court and chose to remove the freeze on the assets of the Sudanese businessman.

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