The International Criminal Court prosecutor sought an arrest warrant Friday for Sudan's defense minister on crimes against humanity and war crimes charges for allegedly helping orchestrate atrocities in Darfur.
The request brings to three the number of senior Sudanese leaders _ including President Omar al-Bashir _ accused of crimes in Darfur.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in a filing to judges that Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein is among those who "bear greatest criminal responsibility" for atrocities in the Sudanese region from August 2003 to March 2004.
At the time, Hussein was interior minister and the Sudan government's special representative in Darfur.
He is accused of overseeing a state-sponsored plan to attack villages in western Darfur. Prosecutors say government troops would surround the villages, air force planes would bomb them and then soldiers, including janjaweed militia fighters, would descend on the ruins, raping and killing those who survived the initial aerial onslaught.
A panel of judges will study evidence filed by Moreno-Ocampo before deciding whether to issue a warrant.
The court already has indicted al-Bashir on genocide charges along with another of his government ministers and a commander of the janjaweed militia for their alleged roles in widespread attacks on civilians in Darfur.
None of those suspects has been arrested by the court, which has no police force, and al-Bashir has refused to surrender himself or anybody else to the court.
Since his indictment, al-Bashir has repeatedly traveled to friendly nations without being arrested.
Moreno-Ocampo said he made public the arrest warrant request for Hussein to put the case back in the spotlight.
In a statement, his office said the request aims to focus attention on abuses in Sudan and promote the arrest of Hussein and the 3 other individuals subject to ICC warrants.
The Sudanese government denounced the warrant as politically motivated, saying it sought to undermine the Sudanese army's progress against rebel movements fighting the government in provinces along the country's southern border.
"Clearly the prosecutor has carefully chosen his timing to coincide with the victories scored by the Sudanese Armed Forces against the rebels on all operation scenes," Sudan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on the official Sudan News Agency. "We have no doubt that the timing was meant to spoil the victories scored and to raise the failing morale of the rebels."
The rights group the Enough Project, which aims to end genocide and crimes against humanity, welcomed the prosecutor's move. "An arrest warrant would be helpful in that it would focus responsibility for major war crimes more closely on the senior figures in the armed forces who have consistently targeted civilians in the context of their military operations," said John Prendergast, the group's co-founder.
Prosecutors also have indicted two rebels for allegedly leading an attack on an African Union peacekeeper compound in Darfur. Judges dismissed similar charges against another rebel for lack of evidence. All three of the rebels surrendered voluntarily to the Hague-based court last year.
Darfur was plunged into turmoil in 2003, when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Sudanese government, whom they accused of discrimination.
The Khartoum government is accused of retaliating by unleashing Arab militias on civilians _ a charge the government denies. The U.N. estimates 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been displaced in the conflict.