Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Describing a systematic government campaign to decimate the people of Darfur, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor on Monday charged the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, with genocide and war crimes and called for his arrest.

The charges are the first to be brought against a sitting head of state by the 5-year-old court. While it remains to be seen whether it'll help to end the conflict in Darfur — the vast western region of Sudan that for six years has been racked by fighting between government-backed militias and several rebel factions — human rights groups said that al-Bashir's indictment was a step toward ending impunity for war crimes.

The court's prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo of Argentina, said that he'd chronicled state-sponsored violence in Darfur over the past five years and had concluded that al-Bashir had "masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa," the three main ethnic groups in Darfur.

In response to a rebel uprising in Darfur, Moreno Ocampo said, al-Bashir sent government forces and Arab militias known as janjaweed to destroy villages inhabited by those three groups. On al-Bashir's orders, pro-government forces slaughtered some 35,000 civilians beginning in March 2003 and raped thousands of women and girls, he said.

Al-Bashir, who became president in 1989, also has used his near-total control over Sudan's political and security structures to thwart efforts to help the nearly 2.5 million Darfurians who've become refugees in their own land, Moreno Ocampo said. Al-Bashir's government "consistently obstructs or blocks humanitarian assistance" and has stationed militias on the outskirts of displacement camps to terrorize the inhabitants, he said.

More than 100,000 civilians — the vast majority of them from Darfur's main ethnic groups — have endured "slow death" from hunger, illness and poor living conditions in the camps, according to court documents.

"(Al-Bashir) is the mastermind behind the alleged crimes," Moreno Ocampo said. "He has absolute control."

A three-judge panel now must determine whether to issue a warrant for al-Bashir's arrest, a process that could take months. Sudan, which isn't a party to the court, has ignored warrants issued last year for two other Darfur suspects: Ahmed Haroun, a humanitarian affairs minister in al-Bashir's government, and alleged janjaweed commander Ali Kosheib.

Sudanese government spokesman Rabbie Abdel Atti said that the case against al-Bashir "will be resisted by all political means."