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War crimes warrant for Bashir risks sparking unrest in Sudan

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant Wednesday for President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / March 5, 2009

Justice: A man protested against President Bashir at The Hague on Wednesday.

Jerry Lampen/Reuters

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on Wednesday became the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

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In a controversial landmark ruling, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Bashir for a range of crimes, including the attempt to destroy ethnic groups deemed to be supporting rebel factions in Sudan's troubled Darfur region.

"He is suspected of being criminally responsible ... for intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population ... murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing, and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property," said ICC spokeswoman Laurence Blairon.

Critics worry the warrant could worsen Sudan's deadly conflicts and raises issues of double standards. Still, it's a potent symbol for the victims of the crisis in Darfur.

"This is a significant step for the hundreds of thousands of victims of conflict in the past six years," says Ariela Blatter, senior director for international programs at Amnesty International in Washington. "The fact that the ICC issued an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state is a signal to Bashir that there is no 'get out of jail free card' here."

Nearly 300,000 Darfuris have died since rebels took up arms against the government in 2003. The United Nations estimates that nearly 2.5 million Darfuris have been forced to flee their homes because of the fighting. Bashir's government denies ordering the deliberate murder of civilians in Darfur, and says that the death toll is much lower than the UN and the ICC estimates.

Ruling could spark instability

The indictment comes at a time of great political instability in Sudan.

Darfur rebels are expanding their operations into neighboring states as the country prepares for crucial national elections this year. And relations between the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum and the semiautonomous southern portion of Sudan are coming under increasing strain.

Campaigning for his National Congress Party outside of Khartoum on Tuesday, Bashir discounted the importance of the ICC's looming decision, saying that the ICC could "eat" the indictment.

Vice President Salva Kiir, a former southern rebel leader who now shares power with Bashir in a coalition government, struck a more conciliatory line.

"In the event of the court agreeing with the chief prosecutor," Mr. Kiir said on Tuesday, "the [Southern People's Liberation Movement] will work with its partners in the NCP on how to politically and diplomatically handle the decision of the court." He urged the international community to remain engaged in Sudan, whatever the decision, warning, "The collapse of peace in Sudan shall not only hurt Sudan itself, but shall also have serious repercussions in the region."

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