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By Jean-Magloire Issa

Written by: Staff
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BANGUI, Apr 14 (Reuters) A top court in Central African Republic has referred its former president, Ange Felix Patasse, and Congo's Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba to the International Criminal Court in The Hague on war crimes charges.

Patasse's security forces backed by fighters from Bemba's then-rebel movement in neighbouring Congo and mercenaries from Chad are accused of executing and raping civilians as they put down a coup attempt in the former French colony in October 2002.

Charges were brought against Patasse, who is believed to be in exile in Africa, and Bemba, as well as against suspected Chadian mercenary leader Abdoulaye Miskine, in September 2004.

But the appeals court in Bangui this week declared itself incompetent to handle the case.

''I have asked on behalf of the state that a distinction be made between the economic crimes they are accused of and the crimes that fall under the competence of the International Criminal Court,'' said Goungaye Wanfiyo, head of the country's Human Rights League, who is advising the state on the case.

''There is a part of the charges which relates to war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide. The judge in Central African Republic is not equipped to deal with this,'' he told Reuters on Friday by telephone from the capital, Bangui.

Human rights experts say Libyan-backed loyalist forces and foreign mercenaries carried out systematic rape, pillage and murder on a large scale as they fought off the Oct. 25, 2002 coup bid instigated by current President Francois Bozize.

The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) has said an investigation team it sent a month after the coup attempt found mass graves indicating three series of collective murders.

FIDH has accused Miskine, Patasse, and Bemba -- who is running for president in elections due in Democratic Republic of Congo later this year -- of individual criminal responsibility for crimes against humanity in the attacks.

DANGEROUS PRECEDENTS More Reuthers CH BST2239

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