updated 6/19/2005 9:59:39 AM ET 2005-06-19T13:59:39

A special court created by the Sudanese government to try suspects accused of atrocities in the wartorn region of Darfur has begun work, the state news agency reported Sunday.

Sudan set up the court in an attempt to fend off U.N. demands that it hand over Darfur war crimes suspects to an international court. Most atrocities have been blamed on pro-government militias, which launched a rampage against villages in Darfur amid a rebellion against government troops.

The Sudanese tribunal began work Saturday in the remote Darfur town of Nyala, the Sudan News Agency SUNA said. But it did not say what type of proceedings were held or give any details. Communications with Nyala have been down for days, and confirmation of the court's start came only with Sunday's report.

The head of the special court Judge Mahmood Mohamed Said Abkam told SUNA last week that the hearings Saturday would deal with five defendants but gave no details on them.

"This court is to handle the cases and the criminal complaints related to the incidents in the three states of Darfur," Abkam was quoted as saying in SUNA's report Sunday.

Sudan has refused to turn over any Darfur suspects to the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, despite U.N. demands.

Last week, the U.N.'s special envoy to Sudan on Tuesday welcomed the government's decision to prosecute those accused of crimes in Darfur, but he said the Sudanese tribunal was no substitute for the International Criminal Court.

"I consider the special courts to deal with perpetrators of crimes in Darfur as an answer to what was asked from the government ... last year: try the perpetrators yourself and bring them to justice yourself," U.N. envoy Jan Pronk told reporters in Khartoum. "The government was late but they now do it."

However, he stressed, "it cannot be a substitute for the ICC."

Sudanese Justice Minister Ali Mohamed Osman Yassin denied Sudanese authorities were protecting allies involved in crimes in Darfur, and said 160 suspects had already been identified, most accused of murder and waging war against the state.

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. Government troops and some rebels have also committed abuses, according to rights groups.

The latest round of so-far unsuccessful peace talks is taking place in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

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