KINSHASA (Reuters) - The arrest for war crimes of Congo’s exiled former Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba ends his career as a rival to President Joseph Kabila, and his supporters denounced the move as a plot to remove him from active politics.
Bemba, a former rebel warlord who was defeated by Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 2006 election, was detained in Brussels on Saturday by Belgian authorities executing an International Criminal Court warrant for his arrest for war crimes allegedly committed in the Central African Republic.
Condemning his arrest, Bemba’s Congo Liberation Movement (MLC) party, his former rebel group, said it had been deliberately timed to take place as Congo’s opposition was preparing to consecrate him as its emblematic formal spokesman.
“(The MLC leadership) notes with regret the politicization of the judicial process undertaken by the International Criminal Court prosecutor,” the MLC said in a statement. It demanded the Belgian authorities free Bemba, who is an elected senator.
But some analysts played down Bemba’s political influence back home, saying he had already been sidelined since April last year when he fled his mineral-rich country into exile.
Bemba left saying he feared for his life after clashes in Kinshasa between his militia and Kabila’s presidential guard. Kabila’s supporters said he was guilty of violent treason.
“He’s been out of the country for over a year, and parliament and the opposition have been getting along with business without him. So I don’t think it will really affect the political landscape,” a Western diplomat in Kinshasa said.
As runner-up to Kabila in the 2006 election, Bemba commanded strong political support in the Lingala-speaking west of the vast, central African state. Remnants of his MLC former rebel group are also concentrated in northwest Equateur province.
“We received this news with shock and consternation ... We must now tighten ranks. Mr Bemba is innocent until proven otherwise,” Bemba’s spokesman Moise Musangana said in Kinshasa.
Bemba’s MLC party, which holds 64 seats in Congo’s 500-member national assembly and 14 of the 108 Senate seats, called on its members and the Congolese people to “mobilize ... to save our young democracy”, but announced no concrete moves.
Several hundred people were killed when Bemba’s militiamen fought in the streets of Kinshasa with Kabila’s troops in March 2007, and the presence of these Bemba loyalists in the capital and Equateur province is still a source of unease.
But some Kinshasa residents said they were tired of political confrontation. “There won’t be any violence ... We are sick of politics ... People are struggling to buy bread,” said refrigerator repairman Alexandre Omeka.
The International Criminal Court sought Bemba’s arrest alleging he was the instigator and leader of a campaign of mass rapes, torture and pillage committed by his MLC fighters in Congo’s neighbor Central African Republic in 2002/2003.
Bemba, who had been living in exile in Portugal, has denied the accusations.
Belgian Justice Ministry spokesman Leo de Bock, correcting a previous estimate he gave that Bemba could be transferred to ICC custody in The Hague within two weeks, said later the process of arranging his handover could take between 60 and 90 days.
De Bock said the timing of Bemba’s arrest in Brussels was not connected to the recent deterioration of diplomatic relations between Congo and its former colonial ruler Belgium.
Congo has recalled its ambassador in a row over comments by Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht who said Belgium had “a moral obligation” to say what it thinks about its former colony. In a visit last month, De Gucht criticized Kabila’s government over human rights, corruption and its dealings with China.
Human rights campaigners said Bemba should also be investigated for atrocities committed by his MLC rebel group during Congo’s own 1998-2003 war. Bemba served as a vice-president to Kabila in the post-war transition.
There was no immediate reaction from Kabila’s government.
The Kinshasa-based Western diplomat said that although the MLC had been promoting Bemba as a rallying figure for Congo’s opposition, other parties had been reluctant to back him.
“This does open the way for other candidates to the leadership of the opposition,” the diplomat said.
Bemba’s MLC insurgents intervened in Central African Republic to back then President Ange Felix Patasse against rebels led by Francois Bozize. Bozize toppled Patasse in a 2003 coup and is now head of state in the former French colony.
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Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; Writing by Pascal Fletcher