THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecutor charged Sudan’s president on Monday with masterminding a campaign of genocide in Darfur, killing 35,000 people and persecuting 2.5 million refugees.
ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked the court for an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the most senior figure pursued by the court since it was set up in 2002.
Bashir is the first sitting head of state charged by an international court since Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic.
The Sudanese leader dismissed the charges and said the ICC had no jurisdiction in Sudan.
“Whoever has visited Darfur, met officials and discovered their ethnicities and tribes ... will know that all of these things are lies,” he said in comments carried on state TV.
Sudan will seek support from allies such as China and Russia to get the U.N. Security Council -- which asked the ICC to investigate crimes in Darfur in 2005 -- to block any warrant.
China declined to comment on the case, which arises at a bad time for Khartoum’s biggest arms supplier and a major investor in its oil industry just weeks before the Beijing Olympics.
Moreno-Ocampo said on top of the thousands killed by Sudan’s armed forces and the militia they support, 2.5 million others were subjected to a campaign of “rape, hunger and fear” in refugee camps where he said genocide continued “under our eyes.”
“The decision to start the genocide was taken by Bashir personally,” he told a news conference. “Bashir is executing this genocide without gas chambers, without bullets, without machetes. It is a genocide by attrition.”
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.
Thousands of demonstrators rallied against the ICC in Khartoum on Sunday ahead of the announcement. Aid groups and the U.S. embassy tightened security, fearing an upsurge in violence from an enraged Bashir and emboldened rebels in Darfur.
A few dozen people protested outside the British embassy and the U.N. headquarters in Khartoum after the ICC news.
Before the indictment Khartoum, which is not a party to the court, pledged to continue peace efforts and to protect U.N. staff in Darfur, home to the world’s largest relief operation.
While Bashir’s government sought support abroad, its coalition partner said it favored talks with the ICC, something Bashir’s dominant National Congress Party (NCP) has rejected.
“We should open a window of consultation, exchange of views with the ICC,” the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) spokesman Yasir Arman told Reuters.
Arab foreign ministers said they would hold an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss the case against Bashir, a former army general who came to power in a coup in 1989.
The chairman of the African Union urged the ICC to suspend any moves to arrest Bashir so as to help efforts to end strife in Sudan, which has spread beyond western Darfur into the east and south and to neighboring nations.
“If you arrest Bashir, you will create a leadership vacuum in Sudan. The outcome could be equal to that of Iraq. There would be an increase in anarchy,” Tanzanian Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Membe told Reuters, speaking on behalf of President Jakaya Kikwete who chairs the African Union.
Human rights groups welcomed the prosecutor’s action.
“Charging President al-Bashir for the hideous crimes in Darfur shows that no one is above the law,” said Richard Dicker of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he expected Sudan to ensure the safety of U.N. staff there despite the Darfur proceedings, noting in a statement that the “United Nations must respect the independence of the judicial process.”
Moreno-Ocampo said it usually took two to three months for ICC judges to rule on an application for an arrest warrant, but it could take longer as this case was so complicated. He said he would also ask the court to freeze Bashir’s assets.
The prosecutor said Bashir masterminded a plan to destroy the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups in Darfur who launched a rebellion in 2003 against the Khartoum government, accusing it of marginalizing the vast western province.
He charged Bashir with three counts of genocide, five of crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape, and two of war crimes.
The prosecution said Bashir promoted those who complied with his “genocidal orders”, such as Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ahmed Haroun, whom the ICC charged last year over Darfur.
“The decision on this indictment is a victory for humanity,” said Suleiman Sandal of the Darfur rebel Justice and Equality Movement. “Now this decision will put Bashir in a corner and will help us now to overtake this regime. A criminal man cannot be a president of a member state of the United Nations.”
(Additional reporting by Opheera McDoom in Khartoum and Ezekiel Kamwaga in Dar es Salaam; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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