ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) - The African Union will ask the U.N. Security Council to suspend action for a year on the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Darfur genocide charges, Nigeria's foreign affairs minister said on Monday.
The African Union will make the request in an effort to allow progress in slow-moving negotiations to end the five-year-old conflict in Darfur, Nigerian Foreign Affairs Ojo Maduekwe told journalists.
He spoke after an emergency meeting of the African Union's Peace and Security Council, held to discuss the International Criminal Court's July 14 indictment of al-Bashir on charges of genocide and rape in Darfur.
The statute that set up the court allows the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution to defer or suspend for a year the investigation or prosecution of a case. The council can renew such a resolution.
Fighting broke out in Darfur in 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of discrimination. The government is accused of backing Arab militia fighters, called the janjaweed, who responded with a punishing campaign in which entire villages have been wiped out.
The U.N. estimates 300,000 people have died, directly from attacks or indirectly through starvation, and 2.5 million people have fled to refugee camps.
"We are asking that the ICC (International Criminal Court) indictment be deferred to give peace a chance," Maduekwe said on behalf of his colleagues on the council.
The al-Bashir indictment was the first time prosecutors at the permanent war crimes tribunal have issued charges against a sitting head of state.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo's indictment of al-Bashir was coupled with a request to the court to issue an arrest warrant for him. But it will be months before a panel of judges decides on that request.
"Our concern is the timing and how this could impact on the peace process in Sudan," said Maduekwe.
If al-Bashir were removed from power and arrested, "the whole place could turn into one huge graveyard. That could happen," Maduekwe said.
Earlier Monday, Sudan's AU ambassador, Akuei Bona Malwal, said that al-Bashir's indictment on Darfur genocide could also threaten a fragile peace deal aimed at resolving a separate conflict, between north and south Sudan.
A 2005 peace agreement ended a 21-year war between Southern Sudan and the government in Khartoum, which is in Sudan's north. Al-Bashir was one of the signatories.
Malwal said that if al-Bashir is removed because of the indictment there is no guarantee that another Sudanese leader would abide by that peace deal and if that happened, Southern Sudan could automatically secede, he said.