updated 6/6/2005 9:03:41 AM ET 2005-06-06T13:03:41

The International Criminal Court on Monday formally announced the opening of a war crimes investigation in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Prosecutors said in a statement their inquiries will be “impartial and independent, focusing on the individuals who bear the greatest criminal responsibility.”

The court has been analyzing the situation in Darfur since the United Nations in April referred to it allegations of rape, murder and plunder, following a Security Council vote. Dozens of court officials are preparing for the investigation, the largest and most important to be handled by the fledgling body since it was established in July 2002.

Investigators have said they hope to move quickly and complete their work over a period of months, rather than years. Once they have gathered evidence and interviewed witnesses, court officials will then consider issuing indictments against individual suspects and seek their

Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo will brief the United Nations about his plans later this month in New York.

The vast western Sudanese region of Darfur is the scene of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. An estimated 180,000 people have died — many from hunger and disease — and about 2 million others have been displaced since the conflict began in February 2003.

U.S. didn't close door to trial
The referral of the Darfur case was made possible when the United States — which opposes the Hague-based court — backed away from exercising its veto powers as a permanent member of the Security Council.

The U.S. government says it fears the court will initiate bogus charges against American nationals, and has actively undermined it by signing nearly 100 bilateral treaties with countries which have agreed not to surrender U.S. citizens to the court.

Meanwhile, 99 countries have ratified the court’s founding treaty, including all of American’s major allies in the European Union.

The Geneva-based International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, which spent several months gathering evidence of war crimes, handed the court its findings, including a list of 51 potential suspects.

Uganda, Congo trials later this year
Darfur’s crisis erupted when rebels took up arms against what they saw as years of state neglect and discrimination against Sudanese of African origin. The government is accused of responding with a counterinsurgency campaign in which the ethnic Arab militia known as Janjaweed committed wide-scale abuses against ethnic Africans.

Trials are planned later this year at the International Criminal Court against alleged perpetrators of war crimes in two other violence-wracked African nations, Uganda and Congo.

The court is intended to step in only when countries themselves are unable or unwilling to take action against war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed on their soil.

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