The International Criminal Court issued a warrant Wednesday for the arrest Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The warrant is the first issued against a sitting head of state by the Hague-based court, which stopped short of including a count of genocide over a conflict that United Nations officials say has killed as many as 300,000 people since 2003.
The court, which was set up in 2002, indicted the 65-year-old Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which include murder, rape and torture. The three-judge panel said it had insufficient grounds for genocide.
"We've got to work now to implement the decision of the judges" chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told Al Arabiya TV in an exclusive interview as the decision was being read by the ICC court. "I think this changes everything."
The ICC registrar said Bashir's position as a sitting head of state did not grant him any immunity.
Darfur rebel leaders hailed a "great victory" after the warrant while top African Union official Jean Ping warned the warrant could threaten an ailing peace process in Sudan, he told AFP Wednesday.
Tension mounted in Sudan's western Darfur region, where U.N. officials said hundreds of Sudanese government troops paraded through the regional capital El Fasher in a show of strength.
Aid workers said Sudanese officials told them to pull some staff out of parts of Darfur earlier this week because the humanitarian workers might be targeted.
"Khartoum is going to react violently against Darfur's population. And we are ready to defend our people," said Ahmed Abdel Shafie, leader of a rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).
Following the ICC's announcement, the United States said it would support an immediate ceasefire and a long-term peace in Sudan but warned against attacks on civilians and foreigners.
"The United States believes those who have committed atrocities should be brought to justice," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said during a trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Jerusalem.
Wood added that any attacks against civilians and foreign interests in Sudan "must be avoided and will not be tolerated."
Meanwhile, the international human rights groups hailed the decision and called on Bashir to turn himself in.
“This announcement is an important signal – both for Darfur and the rest of the world – that suspected human rights violators will face trial, no matter how powerful they are,” said Irene Khan, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
The Arab League said it would send a delegation to the U.N. Security Council to ask for a delay in implementing the warrant.
Also Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit called on the U.N. Security Council to suspend Bashir's arrest warrant, but Libyan envoy Ibrahim Dabbashi said before the ICC announcement there were no plans for an immediate council meeting.
The council has the power to defer ICC proceedings for up to one year at a time.
Ocampo, who first called for an arrest warrant to be issued against al-Bashir back in July last year, said he had strong evidence against the leader of Africa's biggest country.
"We have more than 30 different witnesses who will present how he managed and controlled everything," he told Al Arabiya, noting that the prosecution had to prove Bashir's guit "beyond any doubt" in order to get a conviction.
(To see Al Arabiya's full interview in English with Ocampo after the decision go to http://evideo.alarabiya.net/ShowClip.aspx?clipid=2009.03.04.11.32.58.456)
The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died since conflict broke out in Sudan's western Darfur region in 2003, when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated regime for a greater share of resources and power.
Ocampo accused Bashir of personally instructing his forces to annihilate three ethnic groups -- the Fur, the Masalit and the Zaghawa -- and said some 2.5 million people had been victimized by his actions.
Tasked by the U.N. Security Council, the office of the prosecutor had been probing the Darfur conflict since 2005.
In May 2007, the ICC issued arrest warrants for crimes in Darfur against Sudanese government minister Ahmed Haroun and Janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb, which Khartoum has refused to honor.
Ocampo, an Argentinean lawyer, also sought warrants for three thus far unidentified Darfur rebel leaders in November last year over a deadly attack on African peacekeepers in 2007.
The ICC has no powers to enforce its own arrest warrants and the ICC said only states can apprehend Bashir, who can be arrested on the territory of states who have signed up to the court's founding Rome Statute.
Bashir's government rejects ICC jurisdiction and Bashir has denied the charges.