PARIS (AFP) — France on Friday raised the possibility of suspending international war crimes proceedings against Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir in exchange for a "gesture" of good will from Khartoum on Darfur.
"What we want is to relaunch the search for a peace settlement through dialogue," an official at the French presidency said, asked whether Paris could back a suspension of the probe by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
"If this dialogue resumes, gets under way in good conditions, makes good progress, if the Sudanese government makes gestures towards the ICC, then it would make sense to think about how the Security Council could take account of the new situation," he said.
ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked the court in July for an arrest warrant for Beshir on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in its western province of Darfur.
The court is expected to reach a decision in the coming weeks on whether to issue the warrant.
But the UN Security Council has the option of deferring the prosecution for one year, renewable, if backed by nine of its 15 members and all five permanent members, which include France.
Sudan has been working hard to ward off potential charges, drumming up support from the African Union (AU) and Arab League.
Both bodies have urged the Security Council to defer the probe, warning it risks stoking further unrest in Sudan, and the AU plans to raise the issue at the UN General Assembly that opened in New York this week.
Rebels in Darfur have reported an upsurge in fighting over the past week, with heavy attacks on their positions by government and militia forces, and thousands of civilians are reported to have fled the fighting.
The official at the French presidency stressed it was "very premature" to talk of a UN resolution on the question.
But he suggested Khartoum could make a "gesture" concerning two other figures targeted by ICC arrest warrants, whom it it has so far refused to hand over to the court.
The French foreign ministry called Friday for Sudan to respect the decisions of the ICC concerning the pair, Sudanese humanitarian affairs minister Ahmed Haroun and militia chief Ali Kosheib.
But five non-governmental organisations including Amnesty International wrote to French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday saying they feared Paris was planning a compromise that would allow Khartoum to try them in Sudan.
The NGOs warned the French president, who made tackling the Darfur conflict an election pledge, that any compromise on the war crimes probe would "deal a major blow to the credibility and dissuasive power of the international criminal justice system."
"Khartoum certainly has the means of applying pressure, with thousands of UN soldiers deployed on its soil, but we must not give to the Sudanese government's blackmail," warned Clement Boursin of Acat-France, a group that campaigns against torture.
Boursin said Paris is seeking assurances on the end of fighting in Darfur, the resumption of political negotiations, the normalisation of relations between Sudan and Chad, and the deployment of the UN force in Darfur.
"It is the eternal, difficult debate that faces governments. What is our priority? Is it to stop a war, to end the killings, to save human lives. Or is it to carry out justice via the ICC?" said the Elysee official.
According to the United Nations, up to 300,000 people have died in Darfur and more than 2.2 million have fled their homes since rebels rose up against Khartoum in February 2003. Sudan says 10,000 people have been killed.
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