By Sara Webb and Alexander Dziadosz
AMSTERDAM/KHARTOUM (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor requested an arrest warrant for Sudan's defense minister on Friday as part of the court's investigation into atrocities in the Darfur conflict, a move that Khartoum dismissed as "political."
The ICC has already issued arrest warrants for Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of orchestrating genocide in Darfur, as well as for a former minister of state for the interior and a militia leader, who all remain at large.
Bashir has so far been able to travel widely without being arrested, to nearby Middle Eastern and African allies and as far afield as China.
The United Nations has said as many as 300,000 people died in the Darfur conflict. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.
Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein is one of several senior officials that Human Rights Watch had asked the Hague-based war crimes court to investigate over the conflict.
He is one of Bashir's closest allies and is leading a campaign against rebels in the southern border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
The ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said Hussein was wanted for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Darfur from August 2003 to March 2004, and that he was an important link in the chain of command.
"Hussein in 2003 was the minister of interior and the special representative of president Bashir, giving him all the power to rule Darfur," Moreno-Ocampo said.
He added that in those positions, Hussein had supervised the police and the army, and had appointed and supervised Ahmad Haroun, the former minister of state for the interior.
Haroun, now governor of Sudan's South Kordofan border state, is wanted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
"The evidence shows that directly and through Mr. Haroun, Mr. Hussein played a central role in coordinating the crimes, including in recruiting, mobilizing, funding, arming, training and the deployment of the militia/Janjaweed as part of the government of the Sudan forces, with the knowledge that these forces would commit the crimes," Moreno-Ocampo said.
As a result, 4 million people were displaced, he added.
John Prendergast, a former U.S. State Department official and co-founder of Enough Project, a Washington-based anti-genocide group, said the arrest warrant would help focus responsibility for major war crimes more closely on the senior figures in the armed forces who he said have consistently targeted civilians in their military operations.
"President Bashir and Defense Minister Hussein are part of a small cabal making most of the decisions on war strategy, not just in Darfur but also in the current hot spots of South Kordofan and Blue Nile," he told Reuters.
"They are responsible for the forcible displacement of literally millions of Sudanese over the course of the last eight years, and countless others before that in the North-South war."
Darfur's rebel groups also welcomed the ICC's move.
"This request is a real victory for the Sudanese people ... and for international justice and the victims of the war in Darfur," said Gibreel Adam Bilal, spokesman for the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, an alliance of rebel groups formed last month to topple Bashir's government.
Sudan's foreign ministry said in a statement the prosecutor had timed his request to coincide with recent Sudanese government military victories over rebel forces, particularly in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.
"We have no doubt that the timing was intended to affect these victories and raise the rebels' flagging morale," it said.
Rabie Abdelati, senior member of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party, told Reuters the ICC decision was "ridiculous."
"We think that these accusations and allegations by the ICC are just something political."
Abdelati said he did not expect any changes in the Sudanese government's foreign or domestic policies because of the new warrant and pointed out that Bashir had been able to travel with relative ease since the warrant for his arrest was issued.
The ICC has been frustrated in its efforts to secure Bashir's arrest. It does not have its own police force and relies on member states to enforce warrants.
Bashir denies the charges and refuses to recognize the international court.
He visited the southern African state of Malawi in October for a regional trade summit, prompting the ICC to demand an explanation from Malawi, given that it is an ICC member state and therefore obliged to co-operate with the court. ID:nL5E7LJ3JB]
(Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz, Liza Jansen, and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)