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Rebel leader says he is innocent of ICC war crimes charges

Latest update : 2009-05-18

The leader of a Darfur rebel faction, Bahar Idriss Abu Garda (pictured), claimed his innocence at the International Criminal Court, which has charged him with war crimes committed in Sudan, including a 2007 attack on African Union peacekeepers.

AFP - A Darfur rebel chief proclaimed his innocence on Monday after appearing before an international war crimes court and urged Sudan President Omar al-Beshir to follow his example and surrender.

The 46-year-old rebel, Bahar Idriss Abu Garda, became the first person to appear before the International Criminal Court over the six-year conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur after surrendering on Sunday.

"I would like to confirm that absolutely I am not guilty to all charges," the United Resistance Front leader told journalists in The Hague after a brief appearance on three counts of war crimes.

"But it is very important for any honest leader to come and to face the justice."

His surrender came some 10 weeks after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Beshir, who has refused to cooperate.

Abu Garda faces charges of murder and pillage over a September 2007 attack on the Haskanita military base in north Darfur that killed 12 African Union peacekeepers and seriously wounded eight others.

ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who was present for Monday's hearing, has described the act as "the most serious attack against peacekeepers in Darfur."

Alongside two other rebel leaders whose names the prosecutor has not divulged, Abu Garda is accused of commanding about 1,000 men in a convoy of 30 vehicles mounted with heavy weapons to attack the peacekeepers.

The attackers also destroyed infrastructure and pillaged the camp.

"I am looking forward to clearing my name," the rebel leader told journalists outside the court, adding that "justice should be implemented for everybody, whether it is Abu Garda or President Omar al-Beshir.

"I call on Omar al-Beshir and the others ... they should face the justice, come to face the justice here."

The court had issued a summons instead of an arrest warrant for Abu Garda, as he had said he would appear voluntarily -- the first ever to do so.

"The court appreciates very much your volunteer appearance," Judge Cuno Tarfusser told Abu Garda at the start of proceedings in The Hague.

"You have sent out a very good message."

Dressed in a grey suit and striped tie, Abu Garda introduced himself to the court in Arabic as "the commander of a resistance movement", and "a political commander by profession."

The judge set October 12 as the date for a hearing to determine whether there are sufficient grounds for a trial.

Abu Garda planned to leave the Netherlands by Tuesday, and said he would return to Darfur "as soon as possible".

The UN says more than 300,000 people have been killed and more than two million displaced since the Darfur conflict broke out in 2003, when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated regime for a greater share of resources and power.

The Sudanese government says 10,000 people have been killed.

Abu Garda urged the international community Monday to pressure the Sudanese government to allow expelled aid organisations back into the country.

"If that doesn't happen, real genocide will happen in Darfur because of hunger," he said.

Khartoum expelled 13 international NGOs and three local aid groups after the arrest warrant for Beshir was issued.

The ICC, the world's only permanent tribunal for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, has to date issued three arrest warrants in connection with its four-year-old investigation into the Darfur conflict -- including one for Beshir on March 4.

Date created : 2009-05-18