(Reuters) - It was a surprisingly meek end of a career for “The Terminator”, one of the world’s most wanted war crime fugitives.
Bosco Ntaganda, the Rwandan-born Tutsi rebel sought by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and an alleged leader of the M23 revolt in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, walked into the U.S. embassy in Rwanda on Monday and handed himself over, the U.S. government said.
A State Department spokeswoman said he asked to be taken to the ICC in The Hague. It was an unexpected move by an elusive insurgent chief whose name was widely feared in the Great Lakes borderlands region that has long been a tinderbox of brutal ethnic and political conflict fuelled by mineral riches.
Ntaganda, wanted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity - including recruiting child soldiers, murder, rape and sexual slavery - had suffered a humiliating reversal of fortunes in the last few weeks as infighting tore apart the M23 rebellion he had helped to launch in April last year.
Pursued by a more powerful rival M23 commander, Sultani Makenga, Ntaganda and hundreds of his fellow fighters fled in recent days to neighboring Rwanda, in a split that could open the way for Makenga and his group to sign a peace deal with the government of President Joseph Kabila.
The knowledge that “The Terminator” is no longer at large in the bush will be a relief to regional and international leaders who have scrambled to try to halt the year-long M23 insurgency in east Congo, the latest to flare in the conflict-prone region.
Several million people have died from war, hunger and disease in the Congo in the last two decades.
Relatively rare photographs of Ntaganda show a youthful, smooth-cheeked figure, often smiling broadly, who likes wearing military berets or leather cowboy hats with his camouflage fatigues. He is believed to be around 40.
The career of Ntaganda, who has fought for rebels, militias and armies in both Rwanda and Congo in the last 20 years, reflects the tangled and shifting allegiances of a territory that has been repeatedly traumatized by genocide and violence.
He was a member of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel group of now Rwandan President Paul Kagame, fought in east Congo’s previous Tutsi-led CNDP rebellion headed by Laurent Nkunda and then became an officer in the integrated Congolese army of President Kabila, whom he mutinied against last year.
A report by a U.N. panel of experts in October named Ntaganda as the leader controlling the M23 rebellion on the ground and added that he and other rebel commanders “receive direct military orders” from senior Rwandan military figures acting under instructions from Defense Minister James Kabarebe.
Rwanda vehemently denies supporting the M23, accusing the world of trying to blame it for Congo’s unremitting troubles.
SELF-STYLED ‘PEACEMAKER’ TURNED MUTINEER
Ntaganda had hardly been seen since April last year, when he deserted the army, triggering a wave of defections by other former Tutsi rebels from the Congolese army.
In May he dismissed reports of his role in the nascent rebellion as “lies”, telling the BBC in an interview he was still at his farm in Masisi in east Congo’s North Kivu province.
“What soldiers? I have no soldiers,” he said.
More visible M23 commanders, like Makenga, had also maintained this line, saying Ntaganda was not involved.
But the fierce fighting within the M23 ranks in late February and March to the north of the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma belied this version, showing that Ntaganda commanded rebel fighters loyal to him who fell back before fierce attacks from Makenga’s faction.
M23’s name refers to the March 23 date of the 2009 accord that ended Nkunda’s revolt: the new rebels had accused Kabila’s government of not complying with the terms of that agreement to fully integrate Congolese Tutsis into the army and government.
Ntaganda replaced Nkunda as head of the Tutsi-led CNDP rebel group when Nkunda was arrested in early 2009. As the new CNDP boss, he negotiated the March 23, 2009 deal that saw the group incorporated into the Congolese army, where he became a general.
Those who have spoken to him say he can project an engaging personality, but lacks the charisma and rhetorical skills of Nkunda, the previous CNDP leader.
“My troops love me,” he told a Reuters interviewer in an October 5, 2010 interview in Goma when he was a general in the integrated Congolese army involved in United Nations-backed operations against Rwandan-led Hutu rebels in the Congo.
“Who gave peace to Congo? It was me, General Bosco,” he said, arguing that he played a leading role in ending the revolt and reconciling the CNDP with Kabila’s government.
His senior position in Congo’s armed forces and swaggering presence in Goma outraged rights groups like Human Rights Watch which repeatedly demanded his arrest by the Congolese authorities and by U.N. peacekeepers.
“Ntaganda has boldly walked around the restaurants and tennis courts of Goma flaunting his impunity like a medal of honor while engaging in ruthless human rights abuses,” Anneke Van Woudenberg, a longtime Congo watcher and previously a senior Africa researcher with HRW, said in April last year.
Kabila’s government has said it did not arrest Ntaganda because he had contributed to forging the 2009 peace.
“I have to tell you that we had good reason not to arrest Bosco Ntaganda. The main reason was to consolidate the peace process, to which he had contributed,” Congolese government chief spokesman Lambert Mende said in May last year.
In a report in October, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) noted the irony of “an ICC-indicted former warlord” being involved in U.N.-backed military operations.
The ICG says it was precisely the “U-turn” of Kabila’s government earlier this year, under pressure from foreign backers like the United States, to publicly seek Ntaganda’s arrest that drove him to lead Tutsi fighters into mutiny.
The main ICC charges against Ntaganda relate to his activities as chief of operations for the Congolese militia group Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC)/Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) in 2002-2003 in the northeast Ituri district. He has rejected the charges against him as “lies”.
In March, 2012, the ICC found Ntaganda’s co-accused, Thomas Lubanga, guilty of the war crime of recruiting and using child soldiers in the court’s first case. Following the verdict, the ICC prosecutor announced additional charges of rape and murder against Ntaganda in connection with his activities in Ituri.
“Congo is full of war criminals, but the ICC arrest warrants put Ntaganda in a different league,” Carina Tertsakian, a researcher on the Great Lakes for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
International Crisis Group says Ntaganda has also been involved in trafficking of raw materials, such as gold. Between 2009 and 2012, he acquired properties in Goma and Masisi, including a hotel, a mill and a gas station, and conducted business in the supply of fuel from Kenya, ICG said.
Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Kinshasa; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Michael Roddy