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U.N.: Trials needed on Sudan atrocities

/ Source: The Associated Press

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the Security Council on Tuesday to take urgent action to stop the killing in Darfur after a U.N. panel called for international trials for those behind atrocities. The panel, however, stopped short of accusing Sudan’s government and allied Arab militias of genocide.

The panel’s report sets up a possible showdown with Washington, which opposes the International Criminal Court where the report says Darfur suspects should be tried.

Annan said council members should consider imposing sanctions and pressed for the prosecution of those accused in the report of mass killings, torture, rape and other atrocities in Darfur, a large region of western Sudan.

“What is vital is that these people are indeed held accountable,” Annan said in a statement. “Such grave crimes cannot be committed with impunity. That would be a terrible betrayal of the victims, and of potential future victims in Darfur and elsewhere.”

Members already divided on trials
Debate at the Security Council over Darfur could begin as early as Thursday, and members were already divided over the question of trials.

On Tuesday, Britain and France, both permanent council members, backed holding Darfur trials before the International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, which began operating in 2003 in The Hague, Netherlands.

“In the face of the shock of this reality we hope that everyone sees that we must fight against impunity,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said.

“The British position is that this is a case that is tailor-made for the ICC,” Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones-Parry said Tuesday.

The Bush administration has refused to join the international court, arguing that America’s enemies could use it to prosecute captured American soldiers.

More than 70,000 killed
The crisis in Darfur, which has killed more than 70,000 people and has affected some 2 million others, has gripped world attention and generated criticism that international leaders were again standing during the extermination of a people — as happened in Cambodia, Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

While the United States has labeled the destruction genocide, the U.N.-appointed panel of five lawyers said there appeared to be no clear evidence of “genocidal intent” against the people of Darfur. Still, it said the atrocities there were horrific and spread the blame among the government, the militias and the region’s rebels.

Sudan’s government dismissed those accusations Tuesday, saying the U.N. charges were unproven and biased.

A 1948 U.N. convention defines genocide as a calculated effort to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part. The convention requires states “to prevent and to punish” genocide but leaves it to them to decide a course of action.

'No genocidal policy'
“The conclusion that no genocidal policy has been pursued and implemented in Darfur by the government authorities ... should not be taken in any way as detracting from the gravity of the crimes perpetrated in the region,” the report said.

The panel detailed a host of violations, including the government’s failure to protect civilians from rebel attack, use of disproportionate force and attacks meant to force people to flee their homes.

It blamed the government for joining in the attacks and for complicity with the Janjaweed militia while accusing rebels of massive violence.

“There was no military necessity for the destruction and devastation caused,” the panel said.

It said the violations “very likely to amount to war crimes, and given the systematic and widespread pattern of many of the violations, they would also amount to crimes against humanity.” And it did not rule out that a court may eventually determine there were “genocidal acts” and convict some suspects for having “genocidal intent.”

List of 'likely suspects'
The panel collected a list of “likely suspects” in the worst crimes, including government officials, militia members, rebels and “certain foreign army officers acting in their personal capacity.” But the names were not made public to ensure due process and to protect witnesses.

The Darfur conflict began when the 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 Janjaweed, an Arab militia, committed wide-scale abuses against the African population.

Violence in the region continues, with an African Union envoy saying Tuesday that assailants shot at unarmed AU observers investigating reports the Sudanese air force bombed Darfur villagers. It was not immediately known whether there were any casualties.

Sudan’s justice minister, Mohamed Osman Yassin, was quoted in a state-run newspaper saying the alleged violations have not been proven and the U.N. panel’s report was “influenced by previous statements by the secretary-general of the United Nations as well as statements by the U.S. secretary of state and human rights groups.”

Peace talks to reopen
The release of the report came as Sudan’s government and Darfur rebels said they will reopen long-stalled peace talks in Nigeria this month. Three previous peace conferences and a cease-fire agreement have failed to calm the violence.

The 1948 convention says anyone charged with genocide should be tried by either a court in the country where the alleged acts were committed or by an international court with jurisdiction over the people and alleged crimes concerned.

The panel recommended that the Security Council immediately refer the situation in Darfur to the international court, which was created to hear cases involving genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity when the countries involved cannot devise their own solution.

Washington has lobbied council members for a new tribunal on Darfur that would operate with the African Union.

“The important issue for us is accountability for the perpetrators of these acts,” U.S. deputy ambassador Anne W. Patterson said. “And there are various options on the table.”