BEIJING (Reuters) - China expressed “grave concern” on Tuesday after the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor charged Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with genocide in Darfur.
In Khartoum, the United Nations told its staff to stay at home as thousands of Sudanese rallied in support of Bashir.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo on Monday asked the ICC for an arrest warrant for Bashir, accusing him of running a campaign of genocide that has killed 35,000 people and forced 2.5 million to flee their homes in Sudan’s western region.
Sudan’s vice president, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, called the ICC’s move “irresponsible, illegal and unprofessional”.
China, a main investor in Sudan’s oil industry and Khartoum’s biggest arms supplier, also criticized the move.
“China expresses grave concern and misgivings about the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s indictment of the Sudanese leader,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a regular news conference in Beijing.
“The ICC’s actions must be beneficial to the stability of the Darfur region and the appropriate settlement of the issue, not the contrary,” Liu said.
China faces difficult choices over its relationship with Bashir just as the Beijing Olympics opens a soft spot for international pressure.
Beijing has sought to balance its energy and political interests in Sudan with its desire for a respected seat at the table in Darfur peace efforts.
Some Western countries have called for respecting the ICC’s decisions. “We are committed to cooperating with the international court and we should strengthen its work by not criticizing it,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin at a news conference with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush said Bashir’s cooperation was necessary to ensure that more U.N. and African Union forces were sent to Darfur.
“The United Nations needs to work with this current government to get those troops in to help save lives, an AU hybrid force,” he said, referring to the joint mission that took over peacekeeping in Darfur in January under a plan to deploy a total of 20,000 soldiers and 6,000 police.
Liu confirmed that 172 Chinese engineers would head to Darfur on Wednesday, bringing all of its 315 promised peacekeepers into place.
The ICC prosecutor’s accusations makes that balancing act harder, with all sides waiting to see if Beijing will seek to suspend the legal action via a U.N. Security Council decision.
Asked whether China would support a U.N. resolution suspending the ICC’s actions against Bashir, Liu said:
“China will continue consultation with other members of the United Nations Security Council, but as for the outcome, that I don’t know,” he said.
He Wenping, an Africa expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a leading think-tank in Beijing, did not expect China to move on its own to hold off the ICC, especially with Beijing determined to burnish its image with the Olympics.
“It will have many consequences that China won’t like,” he said. “Our own peacekeepers could be threatened, and also this will seriously impede China’s space to mediate over Darfur and encourage dialogue between Sudan and the West.”
In Khartoum, thousands of Sudanese rallied outside a U.N. office in the Sudanese capital, some on horses, in support of Bashir, a former army general who came to power in a coup in 1989. They chanted “Ocampo is a criminal”.
The protests, which began on Sunday, have been staged by pro-government bodies but even Sudanese who traditionally oppose Bashir have backed him against The Hague-based ICC.
Sudan has reassured international workers it will ensure their safety, but the United Nations raised security levels in Khartoum and Darfur ahead of the court’s announcement, fearing a violent backlash.
U.N. security officials told non-essential staff to stay at home ahead of Tuesday’s protests. Families have been evacuated from Khartoum and non-essential staff moved out of Darfur.
Many aid agencies said they had pulled staff from rural areas back to towns in Darfur. The joint U.N.-AU peacekeeping mission said it would also begin relocating some non-essential staff, although core operations would continue.
International experts say at least 200,000 people have died in Darfur and 2.5 million have been displaced since 2003. Khartoum says 10,000 people have been killed.
Moreno-Ocampo said on top of the 35,000 directly killed by Sudan’s armed forces and the militia they support, 2.5 million were subjected to a campaign of “rape, hunger and fear” in refugee camps where he said genocide continued “under our eyes”.
In Pretoria, South Africa’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad suggested that Bashir could not be arrested for genocide, and argued that trying to seize him might endanger efforts to bring peace to Darfur. “You cannot arrest al-Bashir? Who is going to arrest him?” he said.
Chad, which accuses Sudan of trying to destabilize it, welcomed the charges. “The international community has realized the tragedy which the people of Darfur, Chad and the sub-region suffer from,” Information Minister Mahamat Hissene said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Opheera McDoom in Khartoum, Madeleine Chambers in Berlin and Kristin Roberts in Washington; Editing by Sami Aboudi)