THE HAGUE - International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors said on Monday Sudanese Darfur rebel leader Bahr Idriss Abu Garda deliberately ordered the killing of 12 African Union peacekeepers, leaving civilians unprotected.

Abu Garda, 46, is the first Darfur rebel to appear before the ICC. He appeared voluntarily for a hearing to determine whether he should face trial on three war crimes charges over the attack on an AU peacekeeping base in September 2007.

Two other rebels have also been accused of involvement in the attack. Abu Garda, chairman of the United Resistance Front, has denied the charges. He is not yet in custody.

Deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said the peacekeepers were sent to protect civilians from killings and rapes, to monitor peace and deliver aid, but were murdered by combined rebel forces under Abu Garda's control, in part for their equipment.

They murdered peacekeepers, who were not killed accidentally. Nor were they killed in crossfire. Most of them were shot at close range. They were executed, Bensouda told the three-judge chamber.

The AU peacekeepers, now a joint AU-U.N. force, have been unable to end fighting between government and rebel troops since hostilities erupted in 2003. The U.N. says up to 300,000 people have been killed, but Khartoum says 9,000 people have died.

Abu Garda, wearing a grey suit and eyeglasses, is charged with murder, intentionally directing attacks against a peacekeeping mission and pillaging of vehicles, computers, phones, ammunition, money and military clothes and boots.

A confirmation of charges hearing is not a trial, neither a mini trial nor a trial before a trial, Presiding Judge Sylvia Steiner said, adding it is used to distinguish cases that should or should not go to trial.

Defence lawyer Karim Khan has not yet made his opening statement to the court.
Prosecutor Bensouda said about 1,000 rebels stormed the peacekeeping camp in 30 vehicles in the early evening using machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. The attack continued into the early morning.

She added that Abu Garda's forces had just split from Darfur's rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and they needed equipment and recognition as a fully fledged rebel force.

International peacekeepers must be protected by more than just weapons and armour. They must be sheltered by all the power of international law, Bensouda said.

Abu Garda will only be detained if the court decides there is enough evidence for a trial. The court will have 60 days from the end of the hearing on October 29 to hand down a ruling.