UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said Thursday he is investigating alleged new war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan’s Darfur region during the country’s current conflict that has killed more than 3,000 people and forced over 3 million to flee their homes.
Karim Khan told the U.N. Security Council that fighting between government forces and the paramilitary Rapid Security Forces has spilled into Darfur which was wracked by bloodshed and atrocities in 2003. He said the world, the country and the council are “in peril of allowing history to repeat itself.”
In 2005, the Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC, and Khan said the court still has a mandate under that resolution to investigate crimes in the vast western region.
Darfur has been one of the epicenters of the current conflict that began on April 15, turning into an arena of ethnic violence with the paramilitary troops and allied Arab militias attacking African ethnic groups. Earlier Thursday, the U.N. human rights office said at least 87 bodies – some of them from the ethnic African Masalit tribe – were uncovered in a mass grave in West Darfur, and cited “credible information” that they were killed by Rapid Support Force fighters and an allied militia.
“We are investigating those allegations,” Khan told the council. “We are by any analysis not on the precipice of a human catastrophe but in the very midst of one.”
“There are women and children, boys and girls, old and young, in fear of their lives, living with uncertainty in the midst of conflict, and as their homes are burnt. Many as we speak will not know what the night will bring and what fate awaits them tomorrow,” the prosecutor said.
Khan said the ICC is also looking to investigate many other allegations in West Darfur including looting, extrajudicial killings and the burning of homes, as well as allegations in North Darfur.
He said anybody inside or outside Sudan who aids or abets crimes in Darfur will be investigated. And he said he instructed his office to give priority to crimes against children and sexual- and gender-based violence.
“We must act urgently, collectively, to protect the most vulnerable if this oft-repeated phrase of `never again’ is to mean anything,” Khan said.
The vast Darfur region was engulfed in bloodshed in 2003 when rebels from the territory’s ethnic central and sub-Saharan African community launched an insurgency accusing the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum of discrimination and neglect.
The government, under then President Omar al-Bashir, responded with a scorched-earth assault of aerial bombings and unleashed local nomadic Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, who are accused of mass killings and rapes. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were driven from their homes.
In April, the first ICC trial to deal with atrocities by Sudanese government-backed forces in Darfur began in The Hague, Netherlands. The defendant, Janjaweed leader Ali Muhammad Ali Abd–Al-Rahman, also known as Ali Kushayb, pleaded innocent to all 31 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Khan told the council the prosecution has closed its case and the trial is expected to continue, notwithstanding the ongoing conflict.
He quoted one unnamed witness who told the court that after 20 years: “We want justice. We want that all those who turned our lives into humiliation and suffering and exhaustion to be held accountable … We want peace. We want to return to our homeland.”
Al-Bashir also faces ICC charges of genocide and crimes against humanity related to the Darfur conflict. He had been in prison in Khartoum since he was ousted from power in 2019 with two other sought by the ICC.
In a report to the council, Khan said his office understands that the three suspects were released from Kober prison in the capital Khartoum after fighting broke out in April. He said his office recently sent a letter to the government seeking confirmation of their current location.
Khan briefed the Security Council soon after leaders from Sudan’s seven neighboring countries met in Cairo on Thursday for the most high-profile peace talks since conflict erupted across the northeastern African country 90 days ago.
The 12 weeks of fighting have turned Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, into an urban battlefield.
The conflict forced more than 2.4 million people to flee their homes for safer areas inside the country, according to the International Organization for Migration. Around 738,000 others have crossed into neighboring countries, the agency said.