NEW YORK // UN peacekeeping troops in Sudan remained on a state of high alert yesterday amid anticipation that an arrest warrant would be issued against the country's president, Omar al Bashir, in connection with atrocities in Darfur. Media outlets have cited unnamed lawyers and diplomats as saying International Criminal Court (ICC) judges have decided to indict Mr al Bashir, who has been accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
An ICC spokesman responded to press reports by saying "no decision has yet been taken by the judges", but insiders maintain that a warrant against the Sudanese leader, who rose to power in a 1989 military coup, will be issued within weeks. The court's prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, asked a three-judge panel to make legal history in July by ordering the arrest of the Sudanese leader - the first sitting head of state to be targeted by the permanent war crimes court since it opened its doors in 2002.
Blue helmet troops stationed in Sudan remained cautious yesterday for fear of reprisals against those working under the UN flag, although Aleem Siddique, spokesman for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, confirmed there had been no confrontations so far. However, he called for the "full co-operation of from the Sudanese authorities so that the peacekeeping work of the missions can continue, whatever decision is made by the International Criminal Court".
Khartoum has said it would continue working with UN peacekeepers in Sudan even if Mr al Bashir were indicted, but has warned there may be widespread demonstrations of public outrage. Sudanese officials were quick to dismiss the anticipated warrant, with UN ambassador Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem saying the document "doesn't deserve the ink with which it is written" and blasting the prosecution as a "criminal attempt to pollute our political life".
Ali al Sadiq, a spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs, described the allegations as a "political conspiracy" and said "Sudan will not hand over any of its citizens to the ICC and any indictment by the ICC is categorically rejected". Khartoum has the support of the UAE and other Arab League members, as well as the African Union, who say indicting Mr al Bashir will create greater instability in Sudan and impede the fragile peace process.
Sudan is an important player in Arab world trade and Mr al Bashir has forged alliances with regional leaders during a career in which he has fought alongside Egyptian forces in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and serve as a military attaché to the UAE. Diplomats have sought to block the prosecution by passing a Security Council resolution that defers proceedings for one year, allowing time for Sudan's military leadership to broker deals with Darfur rebels and advance a peace process with the semiautonomous south.
But campaigners argue that the Sudanese strongman must face justice, saying he orchestrated aerial bombardments and janjaweed militia attacks on Darfur civilians, that have left up to 300,000 people dead and 2.5 million forced from their homes. Mr Moreno-Ocampo, the Argentine prosecutor, says Mr al Bashir "personally instructed" his forces to attack three ethnic groups in the western region and ordered them "not to bring back any wounded or prisoners".
It is not yet known whether the anticipated warrant relates to all the charges sought by the prosecutor, as judges may reject counts that they deem are not supported by evidence. Even if the court orders an arrest, there is no guarantee Mr al Bashir will face a trial in The Hague any time soon. The court has no police force and Sudan is expected to refuse to hand over Mr al Bashir and two other suspects who were indicted last year.
The president's ability to travel outside the country will, however, become more difficult if a warrant is issued. An arrest warrant would put Mr al Bashir alongside the likes of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, his political ally Radovan Karadzic and the Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor as national leaders indicted over atrocities committed while they were in office. All three eventually ended up in The Hague; Mr Milosevic's genocide trial was aborted when he died of a heart attack in 2006, Mr Taylor is on trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and Mr Karadzic's genocide trial is expected to start this year at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.