GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo Indicted Congolese war criminal Bosco Ntaganda has told Reuters he is commanding troops within U.N.-backed government operations to oust Rwandan-led Hutu rebels, contradicting official statements that he has no role.
Interviews from separate locations in eastern Congo over two days are the first time he has publicly declared his involvement and will raise new questions about a U.N. mission already criticized for failure to stop widespread violence.
Ex-rebel Ntaganda is the target of an arrest warrant from the Hague-based International Criminal Court for enlisting and using child soldiers under 15 years old in 2002 and 2003.
"My troops love me," he said in a two-hour October 5 interview, referring to soldiers from his CNDP rebel group who are now patchily integrated into the government FARDC army.
"We chased the enemy from Irameso ... Now they are running to Lukweti," he said of government efforts to drive rebel groups out of the restive Walikale district into neighboring areas.
The United Nations MONUSCO mission provides logistical help to some government combat troops in jointly planned operations. Despite the presence of former rebels in their ranks, MONUSCO says it has assurances from Kinshasa that Ntaganda himself is not involved -- something he disputed outright.
"I am military coordinator for the operations," he said in an October 4 meeting in Walikale conducted in front of U.N. peacekeepers near a grass soccer pitch that doubles as MONUSCO's helicopter landing site.
"I am the number two," he said, calling himself the deputy of Congolese army General Dieudonne Amuli Bahigwa.
Contacted by telephone, Amuli noted that Ntaganda had been decisive in integrating the CNDP into the army but appeared to question that he had an official capacity:
"He was named by whom as my deputy?" Amuli said.
U.N. mission spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai also reaffirmed that Ntaganda had no role in the operation, known as Amani Leo.
"We don't talk to him, we don't transfer him, we don't sit in meetings with him," he said by telephone.
ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
Human Rights Watch, a lobby group that wants Congo to give up Ntaganda to the ICC, said his statement should prompt the United Nations to re-think support for operations.
"MONUSCO needs to immediately consider suspending support to Amani Leo until Bosco Ntaganda is removed from his senior post, and I would add, brought to justice," the group's Anneke Van Woudenberg told Reuters.
UN, diplomatic and military sources say it is an open secret that Bosco has long held a commanding role.
"He has been to Walikale twice in the past three weeks. He's not there for a business meeting or a family visit, he's there meeting with his officers," said a western diplomat, who declined to be named because of the sensitivities involved.
"Everyone, MONUSCO and the government, is between a rock and a hard place. No one has a choice in this whole thing because otherwise he's going to go to war again," said the diplomat.
United Nations and military sources say many former CNDP soldiers remain loyal to their former CNDP structures. Some worry that former CNDP may be more prone to commit atrocities.
Ntaganda, 37, wearing a black cowboy hat and confiding his dream of retirement to "many cows and fields," is documented by rights groups to have commanded troops who massacred and raped as well as killing a peacekeeper and breaking an arms embargo, for which the United Nations placed him on a sanctions list.
Ntaganda argues his decision to do a deal with the Congolese government at the start of 2009 and bring the Rwandan-backed largely Tutsi CNDP in line with the government averted worse violence in the conflict-wracked country.
"Who gave peace to Congo? It was me, General Bosco," he said during the Goma interview, which took place in a straw-fringed hut patrolled by armed guards on a raised look-out.
Rejecting the charge of enlisting child soldiers, he said he would not give himself up to the ICC. He also vowed not to leave his eastern stronghold until accords on the return of Congolese Tutsi refugees from neighboring states had been fulfilled, and Rwandan-led Hutu FDLR rebels had been ousted.
"When we have the peace accords I can move, even to Kisangani and Equateur," he said of two northern provinces. "I will stop if my family, my people, are here. But that will be a long time."
Sipping tea and switching between three non-native languages -- French, English and Swahili -- Ntaganda, who is married, said he was a disciplined soldier proud of his training within the British military system of Uganda and Rwanda.
"Look at me -- you think I'm a man who can't get a woman without raping?" he said when asked if he had raped anyone.
"Lots of women want me."
(Editing by Mark John/Giles Elgood)