THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Wednesday for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The warrant is the first issued by the Hague-based court against a sitting head of state since it was set up in 2002. The move could spark more turmoil in Sudan and the surrounding region.
The court said it did not find sufficient grounds to include the count of genocide in Bashir's arrest warrant, but indicted Bashir on seven counts for war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, forcible displacement and other crimes.
Omar al-Bashir's official capacity as sitting head of state does not exclude his criminal responsibility, nor does it grant him immunity against prosecution before the ICC, court spokeswoman Laurence Blairon told a news conference.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in central Khartoum to protest against the arrest warrant.
It is a flawed decision, said Sudanese presidential spokesman Mahjoub Fadul. We do not recognize it, nor the court that issued it and we do not care about it at all.
Tension also mounted in Darfur, where U.N. officials said hundreds of Sudanese government troops paraded through the regional capital El Fasher in a show of strength.
The court's move could hurt prospects for peace in Sudan and pit Western powers against backers of the Khartoum government.
The United States believes those who have committed atrocities should be brought to justice, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said of the ICC decision during a trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Jerusalem.
Bashir has dismissed the allegations made by the ICC, the world's first permanent court for prosecuting war crimes, as part of a Western conspiracy.
China, the African Union and the Arab League suggest an indictment could destabilize the region, worsen the Darfur conflict and threaten a troubled peace deal between north Sudan and the semi-autonomous south -- potentially rich in oil.
U.N. officials say as many as 300,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region since 2003, while Khartoum says 10,000 have died.
A further 2.7 million people are estimated to have been uprooted by the conflict, which began when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government.
ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has accused Bashir of orchestrating a campaign of genocide in Darfur.
The court said its decision on Wednesday not to include a genocide charge could change if additional evidence is gathered by the prosecution and it sought an amendment to the warrant.
Moreno-Ocampo has acknowledged that help from the more than 100 states backing the court would be urgently needed after the arrest warrant to enforce it.
Violence has spiked in Darfur in the months leading up to the ICC decision. Sudanese government officials have said they expect Darfur rebels to step up attacks after the court's announcement.
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 in the aftermath of the ICC decision.
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.
Moreno-Ocampo requested the warrant for Bashir last July, making him the third sitting head of state to be charged by an international court following Liberia's Charles Taylor and Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic.
Both were forced from power and brought in front of international tribunals in the Hague.
(Additional reporting by Aziz El-Kaissouni and Andrew Heavens in Khartoum and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Charles Dick)