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Warrant for Sudanese leader widens international divide on war crime justice

Cairo — The arrest warrant issued Wednesday by the International Criminal Court against Sudan’s President Omar al-Beshir’s opened up a global divide on how war crimes justice is administered.

While western nations called for Sudan to cooperate with the court’s investigation into hundreds of thousands of deaths and rapes in Darfur, Russia called the warrant a "dangerous precedent."

The head of the African Union said it could threaten peace in Sudan and many experts were left wondering how the warrant could be enforced.

The ICC sought the arrest of Beshir for war crimes and crimes against humanity over a five year long crackdown in Darfur. It is the first ever warrant issued against a sitting head of state, though the court decided he would not face genocide charges.

The United States said that those who have "committed atrocities should be brought to justice." And Darfur rebel chief Abdel Wahid Mohammed Nur hailed the decision as a "great victory."

But African Union commission chairman Jean Ping told AFP the move could threaten the fragile peace process in Sudan.

"AU’s position is that we support the fight against impunity, we cannot let crime perpetrators go unpunished," Ping said.

"But we say that peace and justice should not collide, that the need for justice should not override the need for peace."

The AU leader said Africa was being selectively targeted.

"What we see is that international justice seems to be applying its fight against impunity only to Africa as if nothing were happening elsewhere — in Iraq, Gaza, Colombia or in the Caucasus."

The 53-nation African Union said this month it would lobby for a one-year suspension of the case which it argued could threaten Sudan’s peace process.

And Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s envoy for Sudan said the warrant sets a "dangerous precedent," quoted by RIA-Novosti. Mikhail Margelov said the "untimely decision… could have a negative effect both on the situation inside Sudan and on the general regional situation."

The US State Department called for "restraint" from all involved.

"The United States believes that those who have committed atrocities should be brought to justice as the ICC process continues," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.

"We urge restraint on the part of all parties including the government of Sudan. Further violence against civilian Sudanese or foreign interests must be avoided and will not be tolerated."

Russell Feingold, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on African affairs, said President Barack Obama must resist any effort to suspend the warrant.

"I urge the Obama administration to oppose any temporary suspension of the indictment at this time," unless there is progress on ending the conflict, the key lawmaker said.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said: "We deeply regret that the (Sudanese) government has not taken these allegations seriously or engaged with the court, and we repeat today our call for its cooperation."

In Paris, a French foreign ministry spokesman said: "France reiterates its support for international criminal justice. France urges Sudan to cooperate fully with the ICC immediately and to implement decisions taken by the judges."

German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier said in a statement "I call on Sudan to respect the decision of the ICC and react in a considered way. That means respecting international rules on the protection of foreign NGO missions."

Rights groups saw the warrant as a breakthrough.

"Not even presidents are guaranteed a free pass for horrific crimes. By ruling there is a case for President al-Beshir to answer for the horrors of Darfur, the warrant breaks through Khartoum’s repeated denials of his responsibility," said Richard Dicker, a director of Human Rights Watch.