UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council decided to send cases of war crimes suspects in Sudan's Darfur region to the new International Criminal Court after agreeing to exemptions for U.S. citizens.
The United States then abstained from the vote late on Thursday in the 15-member council, withdrawing its threat of a veto after insisting for weeks it would reject any move that would give the Hague-based court legitimacy.
The resolution marked the first time the council referred a case to the ICC, which opened its doors a year ago. It is the first permanent global criminal court, set up try individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and mass human rights abuses.
The vote was 11 in favor and four abstentions. In addition to the United States, abstentions came from China and Algeria, which opposed any international trials, and Brazil, a supporter of the court, which objected to exemptions the United States demanded as a contravention of ICC statutes.
The 11 "yes" votes came from France, Britain, Russia, Denmark, Greece, Argentina, Benin, Tanzania, Romania, the Philippines and Japan.
The Bush administration was in the difficult position of either modifying its fierce opposition to the ICC or vetoing a resolution that would try people for the arson, slaughter and rape in Darfur that Washington has itself called genocide.
"We decided not to oppose the resolution because of the need of the international community to work together in order to end the climate of impunity in Sudan," Anne Patterson, the acting U.S. ambassador, told the council.
But she said, "We have not dropped and indeed continue to maintain our long-standing and firm objections and concerns regarding the ICC."
Still, the U.S. stance, negotiated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, represented a compromise, if not a switch in position. The Clinton administration had signed the 1998 Rome Treaty creating the court but the Bush administration rescinded the signature through a letter signed by John Bolton, the new U.S. nominee for U.N. ambassador.
Thousands of people in Darfur, in Sudan's west, die each month from violence, hunger and disease and 2.4 million have been herded into squalid camps. Most atrocities are blamed on pro-government Arab militia fighting a rebel uprising.
The resolution was the third on Sudan in a week.
On March 24, the council established a 10,715-member peacekeeping force to monitor an agreement in southern Sudan and assist 2,000 African Union troops in Darfur. On Tuesday, the council imposed a travel ban and an assets freeze on individuals, yet to be named, who commit atrocities or violate cease-fire pacts in Darfur.
France and Britain gave each other credit for negotiating Thursday's resolution. French Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere had initiated the text but left it to his British counterpart, Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry, to sponsor it because of misgivings about the U.S. exemption.
The exemption would bar the ICC or courts from any other country from prosecuting a U.S. citizen or one from any other nation in Sudan that was not a party to the court.
Sudan's U.N. ambassador, Elfatih Erwa, said the resolution showed how the ICC was used as a weapon against poor nations and that "those with muscles can get whatever they want of exemptions."
A total of 98 countries have ratified the treaty creating the ICC but the Bush administration feared U.S. officials would become targets of politically motivated prosecutions.
The next step is for ICC prosecutors to begin investigations and report to the Security Council in June. They will be given a list of 51 names, drawn up by a U.N. panel of experts who reported to the Security Council in January.
Richard Dicker, counsel for Human Rights Watch and an expert on the ICC, said he expected the tribunal to prosecute only about 15 top offenders. The others, he said should be tried by Sudan but with international supervision.
"This is a historic step. The council has acted to provide real protection to the people of Darfur," Dicker said. "But it comes at a heavy price -- the unlawful exemption the U.S. imposed on the referral."
(Irwin Arieff contributed to this report