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US diplomat, Sudanese driver killed in shooting in Khartoum

KHARTOUM, Sudan - An American diplomat and his driver were shot to death Tuesday in the Sudanese capital, the U.S. Embassy said, a day after a joint African Union-United Nations force took over peacekeeping in Sudan's Darfur region.

It was not immediately known if the attack had a political motive or was a random crime. Though Darfur, far to the west, is engulfed in violence, the Sudanese capital and its surroundings rarely see political violence or attacks by Islamic militants.

Walter Braunohler, the spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum who confirmed the death of the American, said it was "too early to tell" if the attack was al-Qaida or terror related.

The Sudanese state news agency SUNA quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying the incident was "isolated and has no political or ideological connotations" and pledged to bring the culprits to justice.

The Sudan Media Center, which has close links to the government, cited an unidentified government official as saying the attack was criminal in motive and that there was "no grain of suspicion of an organized terrorist action."

The Sudanese driver was killed immediately and the American, who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, died of his injuries within hours, Braunohler said. The embassy did not release the diplomat's name.

The Sudanese Interior Ministry identified the wounded American as a humanitarian aid official and said he was shot five times in the hand, shoulder and belly. The diplomat underwent surgery following the attack, according to the ministry's statement.

The ministry identified the Sudanese driver who was killed as 40-year-old Abdel Rahman Abbas and said the attack occurred around 4 a.m. local time as the car was heading to a western suburb of Sudan's capital, Khartoum.

Both U.S. and Sudanese officials said they were investigating but could not yet provide details on the circumstances surrounding the attack.

Crime is fairly high in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, although much lower than in other east African cities like Nairobi, Kenya.

On Monday, a joint peacekeeping force took over in Darfur — a long-awaited change that is intended to be the strongest effort yet to solve the world's worst humanitarian crisis but which already is struggling. Also Monday, President Bush signed legislation to allow states and local governments to cut investment ties with Sudan because of the bloodshed in Darfur.

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri have called in the past for "jihad," or holy war, in Sudan if U.N. peacekeepers deploy in Darfur — most recently in a September video by al-Zawahri. Bin Laden was based in Sudan until the late 1990s when the government expelled him, but there has been little sign of activity by the terror network in the country recently.

Last year, a group calling itself al-Qaida's branch in Sudan claimed responsibility for the slaying of a Sudanese newspaper editor accused of blasphemy for articles run in his Al-Wifaq newspaper. It was the first time a group in Sudan claimed allegiance to al-Qaida, but Sudanese officials have said the claim was fake and the slaying was not al-Qaida-linked.

At the same time, the Sudanese government often drums up anti-Western sentiment in the state media, often accusing the West of seeking to re-colonize Sudan using Darfur as a pretext.

In November, a small protest was held after a British teacher at a Khartoum private school was arrested for allegedly insulting Islam by letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad — she was sentenced to prison but quickly deported.

A U.S. diplomat was killed in 2002 in the Jordanian capital Amman. The assassination was blamed on al-Qaida-linked militants.

In 1972, Cleo Noel, the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, was assassinated at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum by Yasser Arafat's Black September group. Also killed was a senior embassy officer.

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