THE HAGUE (AFP) — International Criminal Court prosecutors will seek the arrest of Sudan President Omar al-Beshir for genocide in Darfur, it emerged Friday, prompting Khartoum to warn of a threat to peace efforts.
"I understand that the prosecutor intends to go before a panel of judges to present information and request for a warrant," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington, confirming newspaper reports that Beshir would be targeted.
It would mark the first-ever bid by the ICC, based in The Hague, to charge a sitting head of state.
The Sudanese government, which rejects the court's jurisdiction and refuses to surrender two war crimes suspects already named, responded angrily to the news.
"If there is a decision about President Beshir, it may destroy the peace process," state minister for foreign affairs Al-Samani al-Wasila told AFP.
"In this situation, Sudan will never co-operate with the ICC," he added.
There were fears that it could trigger a military response by Sudanese forces or their proxies against UN and African Union peacekeepers.
Sudan's UN ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad told CNN Friday that the ICC move was "very serious and all options are open for our reaction."
When asked by the broadcast network whether the reaction included taking international peacekeepers hostage, the envoy said: "All options are open, I tell you."
On Tuesday, seven UN peacekeepers were killed and 22 were wounded in the ambush of a UN convoy in Darfur that some blamed on state-backed militia.
The United States warned Khartoum against any retaliation against peacekeepers saying it was "strongly committed" to international obligations, though not part of the ICC.
"The Sudanese government has obligations under Security Council resolutions as well as the Vienna Convention. The international system expects them to abide by those obligations. Violence serves the purpose of no party," McCormack said.
China's UN ambassador said such a move would put peace prospects "in jeopardy."
"I have a lot of concern," Wang Guangya told reporters when asked about the reports.
Wang said peace in Darfur required "cooperation from all parties" and was based on three pillars: peace talks between Khartoum and the fragmented Darfur insurgency, the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping operation and UN humanitarian aid to refugees and displaced people.
"This might put the three pillars in jeopardy," said Wang, whose country is a close ally and energy partner of Sudan.
Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo's office announced Thursday that he would unveil a new case on Darfur and name suspects next Monday. It said the case would cover "crimes committed in the whole of Darfur over the last five years".
But a spokeswoman refused Friday to confirm that a warrant would be sought for Beshir.
"The prosecutor will make his announcement before a judge of the court on Monday, and we will not give details to the press until after," she said.
The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died and more than 2.2 million have been displaced since the Darfur conflict broke out in February 2003. The Sudanese government says 10,000 have been killed.
The conflict began when African ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated regime and state-backed Arab militias, fighting for resources and power.
The UN force, UNAMID, is under-staffed and ill-equipped, with only a third of its projected total of 19,500 soldiers and 6,500 police currently deployed.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch said Beshir's possible arrest was "very exciting".
"For us this is what the institution was created for ... the fight against impunity" at the highest level, spokeswoman Geraldine Mattioli told journalists in The Hague.
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