* Prosecutors asked for more time after witnesses withdrew
* Feb. 5 date scrapped, trial parties called to a meeting
* Defence team likely to call for trial to be dropped
By Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court (ICC) on Thursday scrapped a planned Feb. 5 start date for the trial of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta after prosecutors asked for more time to strengthen their case.
Kenyatta is accused of orchestrating ethnic violence that swept Kenya after elections in 2007 in which about 1,200 people were killed, but the case against him has been weakened by several key prosecution witnesses withdrawing their testimony.
The case against Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto - who was his opponent at the time of the clashes - is seen by many Africans as part of a pattern of the ICC singling out leaders from their continent for prosecution.
Since being elected president in March, Kenyatta has rallied African allies around a lobbying effort to have the charges against him dropped or his trial deferred.
In a ruling published on Thursday, ICC judges cancelled the trial’s start date and called a meeting of all trial participants to be held on that day instead, at which defence lawyers are expected to call for the case to be thrown out.
Prosecutors announced the loss of the latest witness in December and asked for the trial to be postponed, prompting speculation that the case was close to collapse and fuelling calls in Africa for the charges against Kenyatta to be dropped.
The Kenyan government says the ICC’s charges risk destabilising East Africa’s economic powerhouse and the wider region at a time when it faces a growing threat from Islamist militants in Somalia.
The ICC, set up in 2003 to prosecute those accused of the worst international crimes, has only brought cases against Africans so far and has had very limited success in bringing its prosecution targets to book.
The ICC has scored just one conviction in its first decade, with weaknesses in witnesses’ testimony often to blame for cases collapsing even before they came to trial. Prosecutors have alleged that witnesses against Kenyatta and Ruto have been threatened or blackmailed into withdrawing.
Other high-profile suspects the court is attempting to try, including Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the late Libyan leader, are beyond its reach as their countries refuse to hand them over. (Editing by Robin Pomeroy)