The Hague: The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur, a decision that could spark more regional turmoil.
The warrant is the first issued against a sitting head of state by the Hague-based ICC, which stopped short of including a count of genocide over a conflict that United Nations officials say has killed as many as 300,000 people since 2003.
International reaction to Wednesday’s ICC decision was mixed. The United States welcomed the action but China urged the UN Security Council on Thursday to heed calls from African and Arab countries and suspend the case against Bashir.
The ICC, set up in 2002, indicted Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which included murder, rape and torture. The three-judge panel said it had insufficient grounds for genocide.
“His victims are the very civilians that he as a president was supposed to protect,” ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told reporters, adding that Sudan was obliged to execute the warrant. “It could be in two months or two years, but he will face justice.”
Hundreds of demonstrators protested against the arrest warrant in central Khartoum. Bashir, 65, has dismissed the allegations made by the ICC, the world’s first permanent court for prosecuting war crimes, as part of a Western conspiracy.
Hours after the warrant was issued, Sudan revoked the licences of at least six foreign aid agencies, giving no reason for the decision, aid officials said. “This will have a major impact on humanitarian work in Darfur,” said one aid official.
UN and other agencies are running the world’s largest humanitarian operation in Darfur, a mainly desert region in western Sudan. UN officials say up to 300,000 have been killed there, while Khartoum says 10,000 have died.
A further 2.7 million people are estimated to have been uprooted by the conflict, which began when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government in 2003.
UN officials said hundreds of government troops paraded through the regional capital El Fasher in a show of strength.
Sudan’s under-secretary of foreign affairs, Mutrif Siddiq, said Bashir planned to attend an Arab summit in Qatar later this month despite the warrant.
The ICC said it expected enforcement of the arrest warrant by countries party to the Rome Statute that set up the court and United Nations member nations.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters: “Governments and individuals who either conduct or condone atrocities of any kind, as we have seen year after year in Sudan, have to be held accountable.”
China, the African Union and the Arab League suggested an indictment could destabilise the region, worsen the Darfur conflict and threaten a troubled peace deal between north Sudan and the semi-autonomous south - potentially rich in oil.
Chinese companies are major investors in Sudan’s oil industry, and Beijing - a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power - has also sent peacekeepers to Darfur.
The Arab League said it would send a delegation to the UN Security Council to ask for a delay in implementing the warrant. Violence has risen in Darfur in recent months, and Sudanese government officials expect rebels to step up their attacks.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Sudan to cooperate with the court. “The United Nations will continue to conduct its vital peacekeeping, humanitarian, human rights and development operations and activities in Sudan,” said a UN statement.
The ICC said the non-inclusion of a genocide charge could change “if additional evidence is gathered by the prosecution.” Aid workers said Sudanese officials told them to pull some staff out of parts of Darfur earlier this week because the humanitarian workers might be targeted.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit called on the UN Security Council to suspend Bashir’s arrest warrant, but Libyan envoy Ibrahim Dabbashi said before the ICC announcement there were no plans for an immediate council meeting.
The council has the power to defer ICC proceedings for up to one year at a time.
Bashir is the third sitting head of state to be charged by an international court after Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic. Both were forced from power and brought in front of international tribunals in the Hague.