The International Criminal Court's (ICC) prosecutor charged Sudan's president on Monday with masterminding a campaign of genocide in Darfur, killing 35,000 people and using rape as a weapon of war.
ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked the court for an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the first sitting head of state to be pursued by an international court since Liberia's Charles Taylor and before that Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic.
Moreno-Ocampo said 35,000 people had been killed outright in attacks by Sudan's armed forces and the Janjaweed militia they support, while 2.5 million others were subject to a campaign of “rape, hunger and fear” in refugee camps
“Bashir is executing this genocide without gas chambers, without bullets, without machetes. It is a genocide by attrition,” Moreno-Ocampo told a news conference.
“Prosecution evidence shows that Bashir masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa groups on account of their ethnicity.”
Khartoum, which is not a party to the court, said it did not recognise the statement, but pledged to continue with peace moves in Darfur and said it would protect United Nations staff in Africa's largest country.
Fearing an upsurge in violence from an enraged Bashir and emboldened rebels in Darfur, aid organisations had tightened security in Sudan in recent days.
Sudan looks set to seek Chinese, Russian and African support at the United Nations to help block any warrant.
The new Darfur case could embarrass China — Khartoum's biggest arms supplier and a major investor in its oil industry — just weeks before the start of the Beijing Olympics.
China declined to comment on the charges.
Darfur is home to the world's largest humanitarian operation and officials have also expressed concern an indictment could further stall the deployment of a UN-funded peacekeeping operation.
However rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) welcomed the prosecutor's action as a step towards ending impunity.
“Charging President al-Bashir for the hideous crimes in Darfur shows that no one is above the law,” said Richard Dicker of HRW.
“It is the prosecutor's job to follow the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of official position,” he added.
Thousands of protesters chanted anti-American slogans as they rallied in Khartoum on Sunday to protest against a potential arrest warrant, which Sudanese Justice Minister Abdel Basit Sabderat told the crowd would ignite his country.
"This indictment may well shut off the last remaining hope for a peaceful settlement for the country," said Andrew Natsios, former U.S. special envoy for Sudan.
The ICC was set up in 2002 as the world's first permanent war crimes court. As well as Darfur, it is investigating Uganda, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo but has no police force and only has four suspects in custody.
The Sudan case comes at a difficult time for the fledgling court after judges threw its first trial into doubt amid concerns a Congolese militia leader could be denied a fair trial as the prosecution had withheld evidence from the defence.
ICC judges issued arrest warrants for two Sudanese suspects last year -- government minister Ahmed Haroun and militia commander Ali Kushayb. Khartoum refuses to hand them over.
International experts say at least 200,000 people have died in Darfur and 2.5 million have been displaced since a rebellion erupted in 2003. Khartoum says 10,000 people have been killed.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Bashir on Saturday and stressed the independence of the ICC but also the need to manage the situation on the ground, expressing concern about any impact on the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers.
Sudan's main rebel groups, who have also been accused of rights abuses, have said any ICC arrest warrant for Bashir would be a triumph for justice, and pledged to hand over their own commanders if sought by the court.