United Nations investigators have concluded that Sudan's government and Arab militias have committed widespread atrocities in Darfur and recommended that the case against them be brought before the International Criminal Court. But the investigators stopped short of calling the bloodletting genocide.

A five-member U.N. panel issued a report Monday documenting systematic torture, rape and murder by government-backed Arab militias in Darfur. The report concludes that the Sudanese government and the militias, known as Janjaweed, have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The 178-page report found credible evidence that local rebels groups, including the Sudanese Liberation Army, were also responsible for serious violations of international law which may amount to war crimes.

The panel of international lawyers stops short of declaring that genocide was committed - a finding at odds with the U.S. State Department. But their report points out that crimes against humanity may be no less serious than genocide.

Richard Dicker of the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch said the distinction is small but legally important. "Genocide requires the intention, mass murders driven by intent to eliminate a people in whole or in part on the basis of their ethnicity. The difference is with ethnic cleansing, you can have widespread systematic crimes like murder, rape, forced disappearances etcetera as part of a government plan or policy, but isn't necessarily related to an intention to wipe out or eliminate a people in whole or in part. That's the distinction," he said.

The U.N. report says that individuals, including government officials, may have committed acts with genocidal intent. But it says only a competent court can make that determination. It recommends that the case be referred to the International Criminal Court.

The United States does not recognize the International Criminal Court, and U.S. diplomats have suggested that the Darfur case by sent to a new tribunal in Tanzania set up to try suspects in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Acting U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Anne Patterson said several judicial options are being considered. "The important issue for us is accountability for the perpetrators of these acts, and there are various options on the table, probably some in addition to those contained in the secretary-general's report, and we'll be looking at that closely,"
she said.

Australia, New Zealand and Canada Monday made a joint appeal to the Security Council to impose tough sanctions on Sudan. Australia's U.N. ambassador John Dauth said quick action is needed to stop the violence in Darfur. "We are in effect exhorting council not to tarry, to move ahead quickly, and we've put on the table some practical suggestions, suggestions tailored sanctions, if it's not appropriate to introduce them immediately, and so they're the sort of ideas we're exhorting the council to get on with right now," he said.

Diplomats say a Security Council resolution recommending sanctions could be introduced as early as this week. The measure would also authorize a 10,000 strong peacekeeping force for Darfur.

The United Nations estimates as many as 70,000 people have been killed and 1.8 million others driven from their homes since Darfur erupted in conflict two years ago.

The fighting began in February 2003 after Darfur's black tribes launched an uprising, saying they had been politically marginalized by Sudan's Arab-led government. Khartoum responded by unleashing the janjaweed militias to attack civilian communities suspected of supporting the rebellion.