By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 21, 2008
Vowing to protect Sudanese civilians, the International Criminal Court prosecutor yesterday requested arrest warrants for three rebel commanders he accused of war crimes in an attack that killed 12 African Union peacekeepers in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said the commanders were responsible for the storming of an A.U. camp in Haskanita on Sept. 29, 2007. The attack, which involved 1,000 rebels, was one of the bloodiest against peacekeepers since the conflict erupted in 2003.
"Attacking peacekeepers is a very serious crime," he said. "This means civilians have no protection."
Four months ago, Moreno-Ocampo charged Sudanese President Hassan al-Bashir with genocide -- the court's first charges against a sitting head of state.
"No one is above the law," Moreno-Ocampo said yesterday.
The sealed warrants against the three commanders, who lead offshoots of the main rebel movement, were part of a strategy to get rebel support, Moreno-Ocampo said. Their names will remain confidential for now, he added.
Leaders of the mainstream groups indicated they would cooperate with the court. Suleiman Jamous, a top Sudan Liberation Army-Unity commander, said his group was not guilty of crimes in Darfur but if named would go to court to prove its innocence.
"If we are asking Bashir to hand himself in, then there is no reason we should stand in the face of justice when it is our turn," the Associated Press quoted Jamous as saying.
"What makes these charges significant and important is the gravity of the crime of killing peacekeepers," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's international justice program. "Civilians rely on peacekeepers for protection, and any hope for restoring security for civilians in Darfur depends on peacekeepers being able to do their job."
Other rights and advocacy groups also welcomed the move as further proof of the court's impartiality in dealing with government officials and rebels accused of atrocities in Darfur, and for signaling that violence against peacekeepers will no longer be tolerated. Some groups have expressed concern that moving against Bashir and two of his underlings -- a Sudanese minister and the leader of a government-supported militia charged with war crimes -- could jeopardize peace talks between the warring factions.
"All actors in Sudan must recognize this fundamental truth: Those who obstruct peace, security and lasting stability and who target civilians must be held to account," said Jerry Fowler, president of the Washington-based Save Darfur Coalition.
Moreno-Ocampo said the warrants were based on evidence collected during the court's third investigation in Darfur, which found that rebel commanders had "intentionally" directed attacks at peacekeeping personnel. The rebel attacks destroyed facilities and property, "directly affecting aid and security for millions of people of Darfur who are in need of protection," he added.
Non-Arabic-speaking African peacekeepers indicated to the rebels that they did not want to fight, Moreno-Ocampo said, but they were killed anyway. The peacekeepers were from Nigeria, Senegal, Botswana and Mali.
The peacekeepers, who now form a joint A.U.-U.N. force, have been unable to end the fighting in Darfur, which has killed as many as 450,000 people and forced 2.5 million from their homes in the past five years.
Despite a cease-fire declared by the government last week, rebels clashed with Sudanese government troops in northern Darfur yesterday, leaving at least five rebels and one soldier dead, according to news services quoting Sudanese authorities and rebels.
The Reuters news service reported that the rebel Sudan Liberation Army confirmed attacking an army base near the settlement of Hilif this week. Leaders of the group said the government ordered airstrikes against nearby villages in retaliation, Reuters said.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that reports of aerial bombings in Darfur were troubling and that he was taking them seriously.