Al Jazeera's Mohammed Vall, who interviewed Hilal, said that the tribal leader did admit that he had co-operated with the government and considered the Darfur rebels to be outlaws.

"He thought their cause was not right, he thought of what happened as defence of his own nation," Vall said.

"But he denied that what he led was the so-called Janjawid, and he denied human rights violations in Darfur."

Janjawid 'poster boy'
 
Sudan's president also rejected criticism of Hilal's appointment at a news conference during his visit to Turkey.

"Mr Hilal himself is a Sudanese citizen. He has a very influential personality in Darfur. He has contributed greatly to stability and security in the region," al-Bashir said. 
 
"In Sudan we don't think the claims against Hilal are true. We absolutely do not believe them. The people who really commit murders in Darfur are receiving help from Europe and others," he said.

Human Rights Watch has urged Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, to press al-Bashir to revoke the appointment and investigate Hilal.

"Musa Hilal is the poster child for Janjawid atrocities in Darfur," Richard Dicker, international justice programme director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

"Rewarding him with a special government post is a slap in the face to Darfur victims and to the UN Security Council."

Ahmed Haroun, secretary of state for humanitarian affairs,  and Ali Kosheib, a pro-government militia leader, have already been accused of war crimes in Darfur.
  
Last May, the Hague-based international criminal court issued arrest warrants for both men.

Sudan has refused to hand over Haroun and Kosheib for trial.

Ethnic cleansing

Human Rights Watch said that "Hilal and his men played an integral role in the two-year campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Sudanese army and Janjawid militia."
 
"Rewarding him with a special government post is a slap in the face to Darfur victims and to the UN Security Council"

Richard Dicker, Human Rights Watch
"Scores of victims, witnesses to attacks, and even members of the Sudanese armed forces have named Hilal as the top commander of  government-backed Janjawid militia responsible for numerous atrocities in Darfur in 2003 and 2004," it said.

According to UN estimates, more than 200,000 people have died and more than two million have been displaced in Darfur as a result of the combined effect of war, famine and disease since the conflict erupted.

However, Mekki al-Maghrabi, a Sudanese columnist, said that Hilal's appointment was worth the risk for the ruling National Congress Party, even if he could be tried by a international court.

"The transfer of a tribal leader to a political post is a good step which will open the door to more settlements," he said.

Tayeb Khamis, a spokesman for the Sudan Liberation Movement, a rebel faction whose leader has signed a peace deal with Khartoum, said that Hilal's appointment might prevent Arab tribes from turning away from the government.

"The government is trying to strike a balance, and Hilal is an outstanding figure in North Darfur, regardless of what the ICC or others have on him," he said.