Addis Ababa - African nations on Saturday demanded the International Criminal Court defer the crimes against humanity trials of Kenya's leadership, as the country's president furiously attacked the tribunal as imperialist and racist.
A special summit of the African Union insisted that sitting heads of state should be exempt from appearing before the Hague-based court, and the bloc warned it would support a no-show at the ICC by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta if the demand was not answered.
"What the summit decided is that President Kenyatta should not appear until the request we have made is actually answered," Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.
"This elected leader should lead his country."
Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto have been charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding a vicious campaign of ethnic violence that left at least 1,100 dead and more than 600,000 homeless after disputed 2007 elections.
Now allies and elected this year on a platform of national reconciliation, they argue the case is violating Kenyan sovereignty and hampering their running of the country.
Kenyatta's trial is due to start in The Hague on November 12, and if he fails to turn up the ICC could issue an arrest warrant -- which would expose Kenya to diplomatic isolation.
Kenyatta signalled that relations with the tribunal had hit a new low point, saying the institution has been "reduced into a painfully farcical pantomime, a travesty that adds insult to the injury of victims".
"It stopped being the home of justice the day it became the toy of declining imperial powers," the president told his fellow African heads of state, accusing the ICC of "bias and race-hunting".
The ICC, set up in 2002 as the world's first permanent court to try genocide and war crimes, has so far issued indictments linked to conflicts in eight nations, all of them in Africa, and diplomats with the 54-member AU said there was a sentiment that the court was turning a blind eye to crimes committed in other parts of the world.
"It is the fact that this court performs on the cue of European and American governments against the sovereignty of African states and peoples that should outrage us," Kenyatta said, urging the AU to unite in the face of a "divide and rule" policy.
"Africa is not a third-rate territory of second-class peoples. We are not a project, or experiment of outsiders," he added.
Threat of mass pull-out
African countries account for 34 of the 122 parties to have ratified the ICC's founding treaty, and an African withdrawal from the court could seriously damage the institution.
The Ethiopian foreign minister did not say if a mass pull-out was discussed at the summit, but said it could be an option in the future if the AU's requests were not met.
"The option is open, it's on the table," he told reporters.
The AU bloc, however, has been divided on the issue -- with countries like Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and Rwanda taking a tough line, but other nations seemingly reluctant to get embroiled in a diplomatic confrontation.
AU executive council head Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, a former anti-apartheid activist, acknowledged that African nations should "do more to strengthen the capacity of our national and continental judicial systems" -- seen as a concession to several prominent African figures who have defended the court.
Prior to the summit, South African anti-apartheid icon and Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu had lashed out at African "leaders seeking to skirt the court are effectively looking for a licence to kill, maim and oppress their own people."
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, from Ghana, also said a pull-out would leave Africa wearing a "badge of shame".
The summit leaves a question mark over whether Kenyatta may choose to follow the path of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has refused to stand trial at the ICC for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Sudan's Darfur conflict and who is now the subject of an arrest warrant.
Following last month's Islamist militant attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall, Kenyatta has already demanded he be allowed to appear by video-link so he can deal with national security issues, and this week his lawyers alleged abuse of process and called for a halt in proceedings.
The ICC has meanwhile sounded the alarm over alleged cases of witness intimidation in Kenya.