Darfur rebel leader to appear at war crimes tribunal

AMSTERDAM -- A Sudanese rebel leader turned himself in to the International Criminal Court to face war crimes charges today for an attack that killed 12 African Union peacekeepers in Darfur in September 2007, the court said.

Bahr Idriss Abu Garda is one of three suspects in the case, the only case prosecutors have launched against rebels in Sudan's Darfur conflict.

The other two rebel suspects have not been publicly identified, and the court said Sunday it was trying to see if they would turn themselves in or if it had to issue arrest warrants against them.

The Hague-based tribunal has also accused Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of orchestrating war crimes in Darfur. U.N. officials estimate up to 300,000 people have died and about 2.7 million have been displaced since the Darfur conflict began in 2003, pitting mostly ethnic African rebels against government forces and Arabic-speaking militias.

Abu Garda's surrender stands in contrast to the stance of al-Bashir, who rejected the court's authority after it issued an arrest warrant for him in March.

In the 2007 attack, more than 1,000 rebel soldiers stormed the African Union's Haskanita base in northern Darfur, overcoming a much smaller force of peacekeepers from Senegal, Nigeria, Mali and Botswana.

According to a statement by prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, 12 peacekeepers were killed, eight others were wounded and the rebels looted weapons, equipment and money from the base.

"By killing peacekeepers, the perpetrators attacked the millions of civilians who those soldiers came to protect," Moreno-Ocampo said Sunday.

Abu Garda, who has not entered a plea, is charged with murder, pillaging and attacking peacekeepers. The head of a splinter group within the rebel Justice and Equality Movement, he will appear voluntarily at an initial hearing Monday in response to a court summons, the court said.

Asmaa al-Hosseini, an Egyptian journalist, said Abu Garda told her Saturday as he passed through Cairo that he had proof that others had carried out the 2007 attack. Egypt is trying to mediate a peace settlement in Darfur -- an effort that Abu Garda has said he supports.

The court statement Sunday said Abu Garda had flown into The Netherlands and was staying at a confidential location.

The International Criminal Court prosecutes war crimes in countries where it has jurisdiction -- and in the case of Sudan, it has been granted jurisdiction by the United Nations.

Abu Garda will be the first suspect in four separate Sudan cases to appear at the tribunal.

"Voluntary appearance is always an option ... including for President al-Bashir, should he elect to cooperate," Moreno-Ocampo noted in the statement.

In response to the arrest warrant against al-Bashir, Sudan expelled more than a dozen aid agencies that worked mostly in Darfur.

Another rebel leader, Sharif Harir, said the circumstances of the September 2007 attack were always murky.

"If on our part we are ready to cooperate with the international community ... that should be an example for the Sudan government," said Harir, a member of the Sudan Liberation Movement-Unity faction.

Associated Press writer Sarah el-Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo.