The International Criminal Court prosecutor said Wednesday that he will seek arrest warrants in the coming weeks against three Libyans who appear to bear "the greatest criminal responsibility" for crimes against humanity by Moammar Gadhafi's security forces in the current uprising.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the U.N. Security Council that he is also investigating allegations of war crimes, and at a press conference later he didn't rule out future cases stemming from rebel or NATO attacks.
He said the evidence his office has collected on alleged crimes against humanity establishes "reasonable grounds" to believe that widespread and systematic attacks are being committed against civilians by Moammar Gadhafi's security forces.
The Security Council voted unanimously on Feb. 26 to refer the Libyan crisis to the International Criminal Court and asked the prosecutor to report in two months.
Moreno-Ocampo said the evidence shows that government security forces have been systematically shooting at peaceful protesters, using the same tactics in multiple locations. He said systematic arrests, torture, killings and enforced disappearances of civilians have been reported in government-controlled areas including Tripoli, Al Zariyah, Zintan and the Nafousa Mountains.
"In all the incidents to be presented to the judges, the victims who were shot at by the security forces were unarmed civilians and there is no evidence of any attack against the security forces," Moreno Ocampo said, adding "there are at least two eyewitnesses for each incident, documents, and, in many cases, corroboration of details by pictures or video."
The prosecutor did not identify the "three individuals who appear to bear the greatest criminal responsibility for crimes against humanity." He said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press that he would identify the Libyans he was seeking arrest warrants for when he presents the case to the court's pre-trial chamber.
The court must then decide whether to issue arrest warrants, reject his application, or ask prosecutors for more evidence, he said.
Moreno-Ocampo said arresting those who ordered crimes to be committed will deter others from harming civilians.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the specter of an "imminent" prosecution by the court "should again warn those around Gadhafi about the perils of continuing to tie their fate to his."
Libya's deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim disputed Moreno-Ocampo's evidence.
He told a press conference in Tripoli late Tuesday that the government has "evidence" that most information gathered by Moreno-Ocampo in visits to Egypt and the rebel-held East is "either unverified information or video footages reproduced or photoshopped by some amateur photographers."
If the Security Council is "sincere about finding the truth" it should listen to all parties, he said.
Kaim said Ocampo won't be invited to Libya because it is not a party to the Rome statute that created the International Criminal Court. He said another Security Council fact-finding mission could come instead.
Moreno-Ocampo responded at a news conference later, saying his evidence will be judged in court, and "I wait for them in court."
Libya should cooperate with the court, he said, because it must follow Security Council decisions as a member of the United Nations.
Gadhafi, who has been in power for more than four decades, has fought fiercely to put down an uprising against his regime that began with protests inspired by a wave of Mideast unrest and escalated into an armed rebellion.
"The victims are civilians who participated in demonstrations, are considered disloyal to the regime or talked to international media, activists and journalists," Moreno-Ocampo said. "In addition, citizens of Egypt and Tunisia were arrested and expelled en masse because of their perceived association with the popular uprising. The mosques they used to pray were destroyed."
Since the end of February, he said there has been an armed conflict in Libya and his office has also received "relevant information on the alleged commission of war crimes."
The prosecutor said specific allegations of war crimes include the use of imprecise weapons such as cluster bombs, multiple rocket launchers and mortars in crowded urban areas, particularly in besieged rebel-held Misrata. There are also reports of forces blocking humanitarian supplies, the use of civilians as human shields, and the torture of prisoners of war or civilians, he said.
Moreno-Ocampo said his office is also investigating alleged rapes, including incidents of victims who have been arrested and harassed. He noted the high-profile case of a woman who reported to international media that she had been raped by security forces because of her suspected association with the rebels.
Several sources have also reported the unlawful arrest, mistreatment and killings of "sub-Saharan African civilians wrongly perceived to be mercenaries," he said, noting that angry mobs in rebel-controlled Benghazi and other cities assaulted these black Africans and killed dozens of them.
Moreno-Ocampo said efforts to cover up the crimes have made it difficult to ascertain the precise number of victims, but there is "credible information" estimating that 500 to 700 people died in February alone when security forces fired live ammunition at peaceful demonstrators.
"The total number of persons that have died since the beginning of the conflict is in the thousands," he said.
Moreno-Ocampo said he may seek further arrest warrants "taking into account the full scope of criminality, including war crimes, allegedly committed by different individuals."
Stressing the impartiality of the court, Moreno-Ocampo didn't rule out arrest warrants as a result of the allegations against the rebels or NATO attacks. Russia has accused NATO of a "disproportionate use of force."
He said a report by investigators from the U.N. Human Rights Council on alleged rights violations in Libya is due at the end of May, and the data they collect "will be very useful to the prosecution for further action," including possible new arrest warrants.
Moreno-Ocampo also urged the international community to assist with the serious planning and preparation that will be necessary to arrest those sought by the court.