PARIS: The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court formally requested an arrest warrant on Monday for Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the last five years of bloodshed in the Darfur region of his country.
The prosecutor's pursuit of Bashir introduced new volatility to the already chaotic situation in Darfur. While some diplomats and analysts worried that the move would undermine efforts to negotiate peace and provide aid to the millions displaced by violence, others said it offered new leverage to pressure the Sudanese government to end the conflict in Darfur.
Bracing for reprisals, United Nations peacekeepers and aid workers stepped up security in Darfur and pulled out all but the most essential civilians. Sudan promised not to vent its outrage on them, but said it would unleash a "diplomatic war" to try to scuttle the case.
It is the first time the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has brought genocide charges against anyone. It is also the first time the prosecutor has brought charges against a sitting head of state since the court opened its doors in 2002. Two other presidents, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Charles Taylor of Liberia, were charged by other international war crimes courts, also while they were in office.
Darfur has been a shifting, many-sided conflict, with rebels fighting rebels, government-backed Arab militias killing civilians and one another, freelance bandits attacking aid workers and atrocities committed by all the armed groups.
In announcing the request, the prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said Bashir had "masterminded and implemented" a plan to destroy three main ethnic groups in Darfur, the Fur, the Masalit and the Zaghawa. Using government soldiers and Arab militias, the president "purposefully targeted civilians" belonging to these groups, killing 35,000 people "outright" in attacks on towns and villages.
"His motives were largely political," the prosecutor said. "His alibi was a 'counterinsurgency.' His intent was genocide."
Moreno-Ocampo, of Argentina, said that the Sudanese president had turned against civilians after failing to defeat a rebellion, and that the genocide consisted of more than direct killing. "Al-Bashir organized the destitution, insecurity and harassment of the survivors," he said. "He did not need bullets. He used other weapons: rapes, hunger and fear."
At a news conference at the court in The Hague, Moreno-Ocampo said he had handed his evidence to the three judges who will decide whether to issue an arrest warrant. An answer is expected in the fall, lawyers at the court said.
If the past is any guidance, the judges may well sign the arrest warrant. They have signed all 11 warrants the prosecutor has requested since he took office five years ago.
Genocide charges are the gravest any court can bring, and the prosecutor is expected to implicate others at the top of the Sudanese government.
But the request for a warrant against Bashir seemed unlikely to lead to his arrest soon. Bashir has scoffed at two arrest warrants the court has already issued against two other Sudanese figures, even promoting one of them to minister of humanitarian affairs.
"We will resist this," said Rabie Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman. "Everybody in Sudan — the government, the people, even the opposition parties — are against this."
He contended that Bashir was innocent and that the international court was "a stooge" for Sudan's enemies. But he made it clear that the government would not retaliate against the thousands of United Nations and African Union peacekeepers in Sudan or against aid workers.
"Nothing will happen to the UN because of this," he said.
An important question is whether the United Nations Security Council will intervene in the case. The Council itself in 2005 asked the court to investigate the Darfur crisis, but it has the authority to suspend an investigation or prosecution. Since the prosecutor notified the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, last week of his plan, Council members have met privately, with China and Russia warning that a direct move against the Sudanese president would jeopardize any future peace talks.
The joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur said Monday that it would continue operating in the region, but other aid organizations have temporarily evacuated some of their workers from Darfur to the capital, Khartoum.
Senior diplomats in Washington and London, along with United Nations officials, were working Monday to decide how to respond to the announcement. But in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement, the most formidable rebel group in the region, ruled out negotiations with the government in light of the genocide charges.
"We will not negotiate with a war criminal," Tahir El Faki, the movement's legislative commander, said in a satellite telephone interview from Darfur, where the group's commanders have gathered to plan a new assault. If Bashir does not turn himself in, he said, "all the commanders and young fighters here with me are willing to go to Khartoum and remove him by force."
Still, several analysts contended that the prosecutor's action would provide a new opening to restart blocked peace talks.
"The peace process is dead," said John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration official who is a co-founder of Enough, a group that seeks to end genocide. "Suddenly, a new variable has entered the equation in the form of the request for an arrest warrant," he said. "While the ICC judges consider this request over the next two months, there is a new point of major leverage over Bashir."
Nick Grono, deputy president of the International Crisis Group, said that with an arrest warrant looming, Bashir might feel compelled to show "credible moves towards peace" in the hope of persuading the Security Council to intervene.
"It may force the regime to realize that its options are diminishing," Grono said.
Before making his announcement, the prosecutor said he knew that some diplomats wanted him to delay, contending that peace was more important than justice. But he seemed undeterred.
"Some people have said that for me to intervene at this point is shocking," he said in a recent interview. "I say what is going on now is shocking. Genocide is going on now, and it is endangering the lives of many more people."
At first, the prosecutor said, the government attacked from the air, and used Arab militia, called the janjaweed, on the ground to destroy villages. "They kill men, children, elderly, women; they subject women and girls to massive rapes," the prosecution's summary says. "They burn and loot the villages."
Such violence has displaced "almost the entire population" of the ethnic groups under attack, the prosecution contends. "Now the attacks are on the refugee camps," Moreno-Ocampo said in the interview. "And the government is hindering humanitarian aid as part of its plan."
In the 10-page summary provided Monday, the prosecution drew a tough portrait of Bashir's actions, saying it had tracked all the known attacks between 2003 and 2008 and shown the government's genocidal strategy to attack civilian towns and villages.
The prosecutor's charges include three counts of genocide for killing members of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups; five counts of crimes against humanity for murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape; and two counts of war crimes for attacks on civilian populations in Darfur and for pillaging towns and villages. The United Nations estimates that 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been displaced in the conflict. Moreno-Ocampo said he had "very strong evidence that al-Bashir controlled everything, the generals, the intelligence, the ministers, the media. The janjaweed militia called him directly for instructions."
Lawyers close to the court said that Western governments may have assisted with the investigation — providing intelligence like aerial surveys and electronic eavesdropping. "It is obvious that something must be done; the peace process has stalled and the humanitarian disaster only keeps growing," a European diplomat said.
Peacekeepers in the region, there as part of a hybrid United Nations and African Union force, are particularly vulnerable to government retaliation, diplomats and analysts say. Seven peacekeepers were killed in an ambush last week, and the force has been struggling to simply protect itself.
Marlise Simons reported from Paris; Lydia Polgreen from Dakar, Senegal; and Jeffrey Gettleman from Nairobi, Kenya.