, THE HAGUE, Feb 9 – The International Criminal Court said Monday it will not charge Darfur rebel chief Bahar Idriss Abu Garda over the killing of 12 African Union peacekeepers in 2007, citing a lack of evidence.
"The chamber was not satisfied that there was sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that Bahar Idriss Abu Garda could be held criminally responsible," the court said in a statement.
ICC prosecutors had sought a trial for the United Resistance Front leader on three counts of war crimes which included murder and pillaging.
They charged that Abu Garda\’s fighters killed 12 peacekeepers before looting their camp in a "deliberate attack" on the Haskanita military base in north Darfur on September 29, 2007.
Most of the soldiers, from Botswana, Gambia, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal, were "executed" – shot at close range, said the prosecutor\’s office.
It said it would seek leave to appeal against Monday\’s unanimous ruling.
"We will appeal the decision," spokeswoman Florence Olara told AFP.
"We believe we have evidence linking Abu Garda to the attack in Haskanita."
Abu Garda, 47, appeared before the court for a preliminary hearing last year and said then that he looked forward to "clearing my name".
His lawyer Karim Khan welcomed Monday\’s decision by the court.
"The judges have done exactly what they should have done," Khan told AFP.
"He (Abu Garda) has confidence in the independence and impartiality" of the ICC, the lawyer added.
Abu Garda was the first accused person to yield voluntarily to the jurisdiction of the ICC and the first suspect in the Darfur conflict to appear before the court.
"I don\’t believe that I rightfully belong here," he told the judges in October, denying all charges.
"I had no relation with the planning, the preparation or anything."
Alongside two other rebel leaders whose names the prosecutor has not disclosed, Abu Garda was accused of commanding about 1,000 men who carried out the attack in a convoy of 30 vehicles mounted with heavy weapons.
After killing the soldiers, the prosecution says the men ransacked the camp, making off with military hardware and personal possessions like mobile phones, before razing the base, "leaving thousands of civilians unprotected".
But Monday\’s ruling said that "the prosecution\’s allegations that Abu Garda participated in the alleged common plan to attack Haskanita were not supported by sufficient evidence".
The United Nations says more than 300,000 people have been killed since the Darfur conflict broke out in 2003, when minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudanese government for a greater share of resources and power.
The Sudanese government puts the death toll at 10,000.
The ICC has to date issued three arrest warrants over the Darfur conflict — including one in March 2009 for Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir, who rejects the court\’s jurisdiction.
Last week, an ICC appeals chamber ordered judges to rethink their decision not to include genocide charges on Beshir\’s arrest warrant.
The ICC is the world\’s only independent, permanent court with the jurisdiction to try genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the court in March 2005 for investigation. Sudan has not ratified the court\’s founding Rome Statute.