The International Criminal Court in The Hague on Tuesday named a Sudanese minister and a janjaweed militia leader as the first war crimes suspects in the Darfur conflict.
Violence in Sudan's Darfur region is estimated to have displaced millions
International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo accused the pair of 51 crimes against humanity and war crimes -- including murder, torture and mass rape -- as the stricken Sudanese region entered a fifth year of the civil war that has left more than 200,000 dead, according to UN figures.
Ahmed Haroun, Sudan's minister for humanitarian affairs and a former minister in charge of Darfur, and Ali Kosheib, a principal leader of the janjaweed militia accused over some of the worst Darfur atrocities, could become the first Darfur suspects to face a war crimes trial.
ICC's chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo in The Hague
Moreno-Ocampo alleged in a statement that Haroun and Kosheib "jointly committed crimes against the civilian population of Darfur." He said there were "reasonable grounds" for formal war crimes charges.
He was to present evidence to ICC judges, who will decide whether to issue international arrest warrants, even though Sudan does not recognize the court's authority.
Sudanese officials on Monday said their country's judiciary could try its own criminals.
"This court has no jurisdiction when it comes to trying Sudanese," Minister of Justice Mohammed Ali al-Mardhi said.
Examining atrocities since June
The ICC, founded in 2002, is the world's first global war crimes court
The case was referred to the court by the UN Security Council in March 2005 and Moreno-Ocampo and his investigators have been looking into Darfur atrocities since June 2006, visiting 17 countries and conducting more than 100 interviews.
Their focus has been on events alleged to have occurred between 2003 and 2004, the most violent period in the crisis.
The Arab janjaweed militia, armed and backed by the Sudanese government, are accused of the worst violence, involving attacks targeting civilians of black African origin.
According to ICC prosecutors, Harun recruited, funded and armed the Janjaweed "that would ultimately number in the tens thousands."
Kosheib, who is also known as Ali Muhammed Ali, is one of the key leaders of the militia.
According to the Human Rights Watch group, witnesses said Kosheib led attacks on many villages in western Darfur in which hundreds of villagers were massacred.
The prosecutor said Kosheib "issued orders to janjaweed and armed forces to victimize the civilian population through mass rape ... killings, torture, inhumane acts, pillaging and looting .. (and) the displacement of resident communities".
Separately, the ICC launched a trail against alleged Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga (r) in 2006
The United Nations says some 200,000 people have died in the fighting and 2.5 million have been displaced since 2003.
The United States has described the Sudanese government's repression in Darfur as "genocide," a term most European nations have avoided.
Fighting continues today despite the signing last May of a peace agreement between the Khartoum government and the main Darfur rebel faction.
Two other rebel groups that took part in the peace talks held in Nigeria rejected the agreement and fight on.
The United Nations and other aid agencies are running the world's largest relief operation in Darfur, with a budget of one billion dollars and around 130,000 workers operating in an increasingly dangerous environment.
AU peacekeepers have not been able to stop the violence
In April 2004, the African Union launched its first-ever peacekeeping operation in Darfur, but the ill-equipped and under-funded contingent has failed to quell the violence.
Last November, the United Nations decided to work with the AU on reviving the political process and getting Sudan to accept the deployment of troops under the UN banner.
However, Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir has consistently resisted the international pressure, and has warned that Darfur would become a graveyard for all Western troops who ventured there.