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Int'l court starts Sudan peacekeeper attack case

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court urged judges Wednesday to put two Sudanese rebels on trial for allegedly commanding and participating in a 2007 attack in Darfur that killed 12 African Union peacekeepers.

The suspects, Abdallah Banda Abakaer Nourain and Saleh Mohammed Jerbo Jamus, have said they want to clear their names. They surrendered to the war crimes court voluntarily in June but have since returned to Sudan and were not present in court for Wednesday's hearing.

Prosecution lawyer Essa Faal said 1,000 rebels drove into the peacekeepers' camp on Sept. 29, 2007, firing machine guns and other weapons. They killed 12 peacekeepers, seriously wounded eight and then looted the Haskanita camp of 17 vehicles, refrigerators, computers, mobile phones, ammunition and money.

"Your honors, the evidence is very clear and we believe it is sufficient to establish that Banda and Jerbo ordered their respective troops to carry out the attack," he said, adding that the commanders "led and physically participated in the attack itself."

Jerbo, 33, was a commander of the Sudanese Liberation Army-Unity. Banda, who is about 47, led splinter forces of the Justice and Equality Movement. Both groups were fighting Sudanese government forces in the troubled region of Western Sudan.

Faal said they raided the African Union camp to steal vehicles and other supplies. They also wanted to punish the peacekeepers for failing to prevent Sudanese government forces from attacking rebels, Faal said.

Faal said the hearing was unusual because the suspects' lawyer, Karim Khan, agrees that the evidence is strong enough to warrant a trial.

Khan later told judges he agreed not to challenge the allegations at Wednesday's hearing to help speed up the start of his clients' trial.

"That is not to say the prosecution theory is correct. Indeed far from it," Khan said. "The defense view is that there are many misconceptions and errors and fallacies that infect the prosecution theory of the case."

If judges order Jerbo and Banda to stand trial, the case would be the first to test whether attacking noncombatant peace forces is a war crime under international law.

Prosecutors say that because the peacekeepers were not involved in fighting at the time of the attack they should be given the same level of protection by the laws of war as civilians.

Rights group the Aegis Trust released a short film Wednesday to coincide with the hearing. In the film, relatives of slain peacekeepers call for justice for their slain loved ones.

"It's important and it's good that the ICC is doing the right thing," said Mariam Mohammed, whose daughter Aisha was two years old when her father, Pvt. Bala Mohammed, was killed at Haskanita. "If not because of anything, because of my daughter, because she will ask me one day and I will have something to tell her."

U.N. officials say the war in Darfur has claimed at least 300,000 lives since it began in 2003 through violence, disease and displacement, while some 2.7 million people have been forced to flee their homes.

The court has issued arrest warrants for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and two other men linked to with his government. All have refused to appear or recognize the court's jurisdiction.

Al-Bashir's warrant has however curtailed his movements outside of Sudan amid pressure on countries to arrest him and send him to The Hague to stand trial.