THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Wednesday 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 court, which stopped short of including a count of genocide over a conflict that U.N. officials say has killed as many as 300,000 people since 2003.
The court, which was set up in 2002, indicted the 65-year-old Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which include 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’s government is obliged to execute the warrant. “It could be in two months or two years, but he will face justice.”
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in central Khartoum to protest against the arrest warrant. Bashir has dismissed the allegations made by the ICC, the world’s first permanent court for prosecuting war crimes, as part of a Western conspiracy.
“It is a flawed decision,” said Sudanese presidential spokesman Mahjoub Fadul. “We do not recognise it.”
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.
Tension mounted in Sudan’s western Darfur region, where U.N. officials said hundreds of Sudanese government troops paraded through the regional capital El Fasher in a show of strength.
Sudan’s under-secretary of foreign affairs, Mutrif Siddiq, told Reuters Bashir plans to attend an Arab summit set for this month in Qatar despite the warrant.
ICC Registrar Silvana Arbia said the court expects enforcement of the arrest warrant of states party to the Rome Statute that set up the court and United Nations member states.
International justice expert Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch said the ICC’s inability to arrest was an “Achilles heel”.
“The International Criminal Court of course has no police force of its own to go out and execute its judicial orders and is dependent on the government of Sudan to carry out this arrest warrant,” Dicker told reporters at U.N. headquarters.
Washington welcomed the issue of the arrest warrant.
“The United States believes those who have committed atrocities should be brought to justice,” U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.
China, the African Union and the Arab League suggest 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.
Violence has spiked in Darfur in the months leading up to the ICC decision. Sudanese government officials expect Darfur rebels to step up attacks after the court’s announcement.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Sudan to cooperate after the issue of the arrest warrant.
“The United Nations will continue to conduct its vital peacekeeping, humanitarian, human rights and development operations and activities in Sudan,” said a U.N. statement.
Although U.N. officials say up to 300,000 have been killed in the Darfur region since 2003, 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.
Moreno-Ocampo has accused Bashir of orchestrating a campaign of genocide in Darfur.
The court said its decision on Wednesday not to include a genocide charge could change “if additional evidence is gathered by the prosecution” and it sought an amendment to the warrant.
Moreno-Ocampo has acknowledged that help from the more than 100 states backing the court would be urgently needed after the arrest warrant to enforce it.
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.
“Khartoum is going to react violently against Darfur’s population. And we are ready to defend our people,” said Ahmed Abdel Shafie, leader of a rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit called on the U.N. 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.
Moreno-Ocampo requested the warrant for Bashir last July, making him the third sitting head of state to be charged by an international court following Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic.
Both were forced from power and brought in front of international tribunals in the Hague.