The International Criminal Court (search) on Monday formally announced the opening of a war crimes investigation in Sudan's Darfur (search) region after receiving a list of 51 potential suspects from U.N. investigators.

Prosecutors said in a statement their inquiries will be "impartial and independent, focusing on the individuals who bear the greatest criminal responsibility."

The court has been analyzing the situation in Darfur since the United Nations (search) in April referred to it allegations of rape, murder and plunder, following a Security Council vote. Dozens of court officials are preparing for the investigation, the largest and most important to be handled by the fledgling body since it was established in July 2002.

"The investigation will require sustained cooperation from national and international authorities. It will form part of a collective effort, complementing African Union and other initiatives to end the violence in Darfur and to promote justice," Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in prepared comments.

Moreno-Ocampo will brief the United Nations in New York later this month about his plans to investigate Darfur.

A special U.N. commission of inquiry, which spent several months gathering evidence of war crimes, handed the court its findings, including a list of 51 potential suspects. The list has not been made public, but suspects could include Sudanese government leaders, rebels and militiamen allegedly acting with government approval against civilian tribes.

Investigators have said they hope to move quickly and complete their work within months. Once they have gathered evidence and interviewed witnesses, court officials will then consider issuing indictments against individual suspects and seeking their extradition to The Hague.

Sudan has indicated it will not cooperate with the court, saying it intends to set up its own tribunal to prosecute crimes.

The vast western region of Darfur is the scene of what the United Nations has called one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. An estimated 180,000 people have died — many from hunger and disease — and about 2 million others have been displaced since the conflict began in February 2003.

Darfur's crisis erupted when rebels took up arms after what they considered years of state neglect and discrimination against Sudanese of African origin. The government is accused of responding with a counterinsurgency campaign in which the ethnic Arab militia known as the Janjaweed (search) have committed wide-scale abuses against ethnic Africans.

"The prosecutor's decision to investigate mass murder and rape in Darfur will start the wheels of justice turning for victims there," Human Rights Watch (search) spokesman Richard Dicker said.

He added that the Sudanese government's reluctance to cooperate with the court indicates it is concerned that it will be prosecuted.

"We do think the government in Khartoum can be linked to many of the atrocities," Dicker said in a telephone interview from New York.

By launching an investigation "the prosecutor has stated he does not think the courts in Sudan have the intention or the ability to conduct prosecutions aimed at those with the most responsibility," he said.

The referral of the Darfur case was made possible when the United States — which fiercely opposes The Hague-based court — did not exercise its veto powers as a permanent Security Council member.

Washington has not ratified the court's founding treaty, although 99 other countries — including all of America's major European allies — have.

The court is intended to step in only when countries themselves are unable or unwilling to take action against war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed on their soil.

Trials at the ICC against alleged perpetrators of war crimes in two other African nations, Uganda and Congo, are planned for later this year.