After studying prosecution evidence for two months, a three-judge panel decided to seek the arrests rather than to summon the suspects to surrender, saying the evidence supported 51 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The warrants against Sudan's humanitarian affairs minister, Ahmed Muhammed Harun, and the janjaweed militia's "colonel of colonels," Ali Kushayb, could be a crucial step toward bringing atrocities in the Sudanese province to international justice.
Richard Dicker of New York-based Human Rights Watch said it signaled "the days of absolute impunity ... for horrible crimes in Darfur are winding down."
Sudan was defiant.
"Our position is very, very clear - the ICC cannot assume any jurisdiction to judge any Sudanese outside the country," Justice Minister Mohamed Ali al-Mardi said. "Whatever the ICC does, is totally unrealistic, illegal, and repugnant to any form of international law."
Sudan was not party to the Rome convention that set up the court, he said, implying that it was not obliged to implement its warrants.
Asked whether Sudan would continue its past sporadic cooperation with the court, al-Mardi answered, "What cooperation? It's over."
The court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said Sudan was legally bound to arrest the men.
In February, Moreno-Ocampo named Harun and Kushayb as suspects in the murder, rape, torture and persecution of civilians in Darfur.
Moreno-Ocampo said the arrest warrants underscored the strength of his case, built during a 20-month investigation, even though the treacherous security situation prevented him from sending investigators into Darfur.
"We transformed (witness) stories into evidence, and now the judges have confirmed the strength of that evidence," he said.
Harun is currently in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Al-Mardi has said a Sudanese investigation into Harun's activities found "not a speck of evidence" against him. The Sudanese government says it has arrested Kushayb pending an internal investigation, but several witnesses told the AP that he was moving freely in Darfur under police protection.
Dicker, of Human Rights Watch, said the international community must press Sudan to arrest the men and send them to The Hague. Failure to do so, "risks furthering Sudan's isolation on the international stage," he said, noting the 2005 U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the Darfur investigation calls on Khartoum to cooperate fully with the court and the prosecutor. However, getting the suspects to the court, which has no police force of its own, "won't be simple, won't be quick," he said. Dicker called on China, as a permanent Security Council member, "to use its considerable influence to persuade the Sudanese leadership to cooperate." Amnesty International joined in urging Sudan to arrest the suspects and suggested U.N. forces already in the country could detain them. The U.N. has a mission in southern Sudan following a peace treaty in an unrelated north-south war. But Sudan has so far resisted a large U.N. deployment in Darfur, where an undermanned, under-equipped African Union peacekeeping force is struggling. The Darfur atrocities allegedly were committed in four towns and villages in West Darfur between August 2003 and March 2004. Harun and Kushayb were part of a conspiracy to stamp out support for rebels by "indiscriminate attacks against the civilian population, murder, rape, inhumane acts, cruel treatment, unlawful imprisonment, pillaging, forcible transfer and destruction of property," according to a 94-page prosecution document sent to judges in February. In their ruling, the judges cited one such attack, saying that based on prosecutors' evidence, there were "reasonable grounds to believe" that in April 2003 Sudanese troops in four-wheel-drive vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns attacked the town of Bindisi, along with some 500 janjaweed fighters riding horses and camels or on foot. Three planes from the Sudanese air force also bombed the town. "The attack continued with members of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the ... janjaweed going from house to house in search of the remaining residents and killing those they found," the judges said. Fighting in Darfur has left more than 200,000 dead and displaced 2.5 million in a campaign the U.S. has called genocide. The conflict erupted in February 2003 when ethnic African tribesmen took up arms, complaining of decades of neglect and discrimination by the Khartoum government. Sudan is accused of retaliating by unleashing the janjaweed militia to put down the rebels using a campaign of murder, rape, mutilation and plunder. Judges also said evidence pointed to a "unified strategy" by Khartoum of using troops, police, intelligence services and the janjaweed to fight rebels. Janjaweed fighters were trained at government camps, paid and armed by Sudanese authorities, and their leaders wore Sudanese Armed Forces or police uniforms, the judges said. Although human rights groups have long made such claims, Wednesday's announcement marks the first time a panel of international judges have issued a ruling on the strength of the evidence. At the time of the crimes, Harun, considered part of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's inner circle, was an interior minister responsible for security in Darfur who helped recruit, arm and fund the janjaweed, prosecutors say. Kushayb allegedly commanded thousands of janjaweed fighters in western Darfur. ---- AP writer Alfred de Montesquiou in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report. AP-CS-05-02-07 1452EDT