THE HAGUE, Netherlands – The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court sought an arrest warrant Monday for Sudan's president on charges of waging a campaign of genocide and rape in Darfur, a high-risk strategy that could backfire against the people in the war-torn desert region.
The indictment marked the first time prosecutors at the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal have issued charges against a sitting head of state, though President Omar al-Bashir was unlikely to face trial any time soon.
Sudan denounced the indictment as a political stunt, saying it would ignore any arrest order and was considering all options, including an unspecified military response. One Sudanese lawmaker said his government could no longer guarantee the safety of U.N. staff in the troubled region.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo filed 10 charges against al-Bashir related to a campaign of extermination of three Darfur tribes that the U.N. says claimed 300,000 lives and driven 2.5 million people from their homes. A three-judge panel was expected to take two to three months to decide whether to issue an arrest warrant.
Human rights groups welcomed the prosecutor's move, but cautioned it could provoke a violent backlash from Sudan, while offering little prospect that al-Bashir will be arrested and sent for trial to The Hague. The court, which began work in 2002, has no enforcement arm and relies on governments to act as its police force.
"The prosecutor's legal strategy also poses major risks for the fragile peace and security environment in Sudan, with a real chance of greatly increasing the suffering of very large numbers of its people," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a statement.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Sudan's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamed, said al-Bashir was weighing all options, including a military response.
Al-Bashir likely will attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, and Sudan would consider any attempt to arrest him a declaration of war, Mohamed said.
In Khartoum, the deputy parliament speaker, Mohammed al-Hassan al-Ameen, warned Sudan was unable to guarantee "the safety of any individual."
"The U.N. asks us to keep its people safe, but how can we guarantee their safety when they want to seize our head of state?" al-Ameen said on state TV.
Sudan's anger could undermine talks to resolve the decades-old enmity between north and south Sudan, and endanger efforts by relief workers and an ill-equipped U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force to protect 2.5 million people living in refugee camps, the Crisis Group said.
"These are significant risks, particularly given that the likelihood of actually executing any warrant issued against al-Bashir is remote, at least in the short term," it added.
Al-Bashir, who has ruled Sudan for 19 years, appears invulnerable in his capital, though an international warrant would leave him open to arrest outside the country's borders, restricting his travel and putting him in a category akin to Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who faces a U.N. travel ban.
Still, African nations have rarely taken action against one of their leaders, and al-Bashir is likely to feel few constraints on his own continent.
On Monday, the Sudanese leader appeared at an elaborate law-signing ceremony in Khartoum, where dozens of lawmakers, diplomats and military leaders paraded past him cheering. Al-Bashir waved a wooden cane and smiled as advisers danced and a brass band played nationalist songs.
Moreno-Ocampo acknowledged the risks posed by an indictment, but said he had an obligation to pursue the president.
"I am a prosecutor doing a judicial case," he said. "In the camps, al-Bashir's forces kill the men and rape the women. He wants to end the history of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa people. I don't have the luxury to look away. I have evidence."
The 10 charges filed against al-Bashir include three counts of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and two of war crimes.
The Sudanese Liberation Movement-Unity, a Darfur rebel group, welcomed the move and offered to help arrest and extradite any war criminals from Sudan — though it is unlikely the rebels would stand any chance of arresting al-Bashir.
If Sudan refuses to turn over al-Bashir, it will be up to the U.N. Security Council to press Khartoum to cooperate, something it has so far failed to do.
"Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo's charges against al-Bashir underscore the need for the U.N. Security Council to finally act decisively with a comprehensive strategy for Sudan," said Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition.
Achieving unanimous backing in the Security Council for any action against Sudan will be fraught with problems since two of its permanent members, China and Russia, are Sudan's allies.
Both are accused of arming Sudan, but both also approved the council's 2005 resolution ordering Moreno-Ocampo to investigate crimes in Darfur.
In a statement, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said he "expects that the government of Sudan will continue to cooperate fully with the United Nations in Sudan, while fulfilling its obligation to ensure the safety and security of all United Nations personnel and property."
The war in Darfur began in 2003 as a crackdown on anti-government rebels who complained their arid region was neglected by Khartoum. The U.N. estimates 300,000 people have died, directly from attacks or indirectly through starvation.
Moreno-Ocampo said Sudan's forces and their janjaweed militia proxies now deliberately target civilians in villages and camps rather than the rebels, sometimes even bypassing nearby rebel encampments.
They destroy villages, rape women and girls and leave the homeless to starve in the desert or suffer malnutrition in camps, he alleged.
"These 2.5 million people are in camps. They (al-Bashir's forces) don't need gas chambers because the desert will kill them," Moreno-Ocampo told a news conference, drawing comparison's with the Nazi Holocaust.
One witness cited by prosecutors said rape was woven into the fabric of life in Darfur.
"Maybe around 20 men rape one woman. These things are normal for us here in Darfur," said the statement from the unidentified witness cited by Moreno-Ocampo.
The prosecutor said mass rape was producing a generation of so-called "janjaweed babies" and "an explosion of infanticide" by victims.
Moreno-Ocampo said an arrest warrant for al-Bashir would present the world a chance to stop the killings.
"We are dealing with a genocide. Is it easy to stop? No. Do we need to stop? Yes," he told the AP in an interview Monday before publicly unveiling his indictment.
"The international community failed in the past, failed to stop Rwanda genocide, failed to stop Balkans crimes," he added. "So this time, the new thing is there is a court, an independent court ... which is saying, 'This is a genocide."'
Other U.N.-created international tribunals have charged Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Liberian President Charles Taylor with war crimes while they were still in office. Milosevic died in his cell in March 2006. Taylor is currently on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone.