THE HAGUE Feb 24 – The International Criminal Court has said that it will rule next week whether to issue a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
A pre-trial chamber of judges said it "would issue on Wednesday, March 4, its decision concerning the prosecution application" for a warrant for Bashir, a court statement said.
The leader of Darfur’s strongest rebel group said in comments published on Tuesday that his forces would refocus efforts to topple Bashir if the a warrant was issued.
Speaking to The Times from Chad’s capital N’Djamena, Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) leader Khalil Ibrahim said that "when this warrant comes it is, for us, the end of Bashir’s legitimacy to be president of Sudan."
"We will work hard to bring him down … If he doesn’t cooperate with the ICC, the war will intensify."
ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked the court last July for an arrest warrant for the Sudanese president on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Sudan’s war-torn western region.
If the warrant is granted and an arrest carried out, Bashir would become the first sitting head of state to be hauled before the ICC, based in The Hague.
The charges have sparked anger across the 53-nation African Union, which said earlier this month it would lobby for a one-year suspension of the case, saying a trial at the ICC could threaten the peace process in Sudan.
The organisation said African leaders appeared to be the sole targets of the international court.
The court said in its statement that it was "deeply concerned" about rumours in recent weeks on the possible outcome of the prosecution’s request, and had therefore decided to announce the date.
Moreno-Ocampo had requested a warrant on 10 counts, three of them for genocide. Charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity included allegations of murder, torture, attacks against civilians and looting.
Moreno-Ocampo has accused Bashir of having "personally instructed" his forces to annihilate three ethnic groups – the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa, engaged in a rebellion in Darfur.
In his submission to the court last year, the prosecutor said Bashir’s forces had used rape, hunger and fear as weapons against Darfur’s displaced populations.
Khartoum has denied all the allegations against Bashir, and foreign ministry undersecretary Mutril Sidiq on Monday reiterated the government’s refusal to recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC.
Sidiq accused people within the ICC of seeking to undermine Sudan’s stability by stoking up press speculation about legal proceedings against the regime but insisted that the peace process in both Darfur and the south of the country would go on regardless.
"Media leaks about an imminent ICC decision against Sudan are only meant to undermine stability in the country," he said in a statement carried by the official SUNA news agency.
"Endeavours by the government of national unity to realise peace in the country will not be shaken by such ill-intentioned leaks," he said.
Khartoum, which is under a United Nations-imposed obligation to execute any ICC warrants, has so far refused to surrender two suspects named in 2007 for war crimes in Darfur.
US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice last week said she saw no linkage between the case and a tentative deal reached in Doha between Khartoum and the most active Darfur rebel group.
Sudan and the Justice and Equality Movement signed a confidence-building accord in the Qatari capital on February 17 paving the way for broader peace talks to end the six-year Darfur conflict.
The UN says up to 300,000 people have died since the conflict broke out in 2003, when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated regime for a greater share of resources and power.
The Sudanese government puts the death toll at 10,000.
Bashir, 65, came to power in Africa’s biggest country when he toppled an elected government in a bloodless coup in 1989.
His regime introduced Sudan to a more radical brand of Islam and elements of Sharia law, alienating Christians and animists in the south and many in the northern Arab elite who grew up under British rule.