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First Darfur rebel to appear before Hague court

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A Darfur rebel leader accused of killing African Union peacekeepers in 2007 is expected to appear before the International Criminal Court on Monday and is already in The Hague, the ICC said on Sunday.

Bahr Idriss Abu Garda, who has denied the charges, has shown a willingness to attend the court in response to its summons, the court said in a statement. He flew in to the Netherlands on Sunday.

He would be the first rebel to stand before the ICC after the court’s prosecutor accused him and two others of what AU officials called the bloodiest assault on peacekeepers since the Darfur conflict began in 2003.

The ICC said judges had decided it was unnecessary to issue an arrest warrant since he was ready to appear voluntarily.

In November 2008, chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo requested arrest warrants for three Darfur rebels including Abu Garda. He said the rebels orchestrated the attack at the Haskanita AU camp in September 2007, killing 12 peacekeepers.

Abu Garda, the head of the insurgent United Resistance Front faction, has denied any involvement in the attack and said last November he was prepared to go The Hague. “I will go, no problem,” he said. “I know I was not involved.”

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Charged with three war crimes alleged to have been committed during the Haskanita attack, Abu Garda has been ordered to appear before the court at 1300 GMT on Monday.

“By killing peacekeepers, the perpetrators attacked the millions of civilians who those soldiers came to protect,” prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo said in a statement. “Attacking peacekeepers is a serious crime ... and shall be prosecuted.”

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was indicted by the ICC in March in the first indictment against a sitting head of state. He was charged for seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which include murder, rape and torture.

Sudan said the prosecution of Abu Garda had not changed its opinion of the ICC, which it has dismissed as part of a Western plot against Khartoum.

“We are sticking to our position that no Sudanese person should be handed over to the court, even a Darfur rebel,” said Ali Youssef Ahmed from Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We feel that the Sudanese judicial system is quite competent to deal with all crimes related to Darfur. But we were not informed and we cannot stop a person who wants to surrender himself to the ICC.”

The AU peacekeepers, now a joint AU-UN force, have been unable to end fighting that international experts say has killed 200,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. There is no sign of a deal between Khartoum and the largely non-Arab Darfur rebels.

Additional reporting by Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam and Andrew Heavens in Khartoum; editing by Richard Balmforth