KIGALI (Reuters) - The U.S. Embassy in Rwanda was on Tuesday working out the logistics of transferring a Congolese warlord to the International Criminal Court (ICC), a day after Bosco Ntaganda walked off the street to face war crimes charges.
Ntaganda stunned embassy staff in Kigali when he gave himself up, a seemingly meek end to a 15-year long career that saw him fight as a rebel and government soldier on both sides of the Rwanda-Congo border.
He specifically asked to be transferred to the Hague-based tribunal, the U.S. State Department said.
“We’re completely working to facilitate his transfer to The Hague,” said an official at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali. “We are still figuring out how it’s going to work.”
Neither the United States nor Rwanda has an obligation to hand over the commander nicknamed “the Terminator” to the ICC as they are not signatories to the Rome Statute which set up the independent, permanent court in the Netherlands to try people accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Washington broadly supports the ICC, but testimony by Ntaganda, who has fought in a string of Rwanda-backed rebellions in Congo’s east, may be damaging for the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a close U.S. ally.
Rwandan-born Ntaganda faces charges of recruiting child soldiers, murder, ethnic persecution, sexual slavery and rape during the 2002-3 conflict in northeastern Congo’s gold-mining Ituri district.
A U.N. panel of experts said Ntaganda was most recently a leader of the year-old M23 rebellion - an insurgency in eastern Congo that experts have said was backed by senior Rwandan government and military officials.
One of Africa’s most wanted men, Ntaganda’s fall came after a split within the M23 rebel movement in past months left the rebel commander increasingly sidelined and, eventually, defeated on the battlefield.
It was still not clear how Ntaganda crossed into Rwanda and then proceeded on to the capital supposedly undetected.
Foreign diplomats in Kigali suspect he may have had help from high-powered allies inside Kigali - a belief echoed by Congolese on the hectic streets of the capital, Kinshasa
“To have somebody who worked for Rwanda for years and years, you don’t throw him away like that. You have loyalty,” said a Kigali-based diplomat.
The prospect of Ntaganda standing in the dock at the ICC may not be particularly comfortable for the Rwandan authorities.
“He could put things on the table to make things easier for himself and get a lighter sentence. He’s dangerous to them,” said the diplomat.
“There’s a verbal tradition here so it’s unlikely much evidence is on paper. But it’s not comfortable, they don’t need that.”
Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said the decision to send Ntaganda to The Hague was “not Rwanda’s business” as he was on U.S. soil.
With an international arrest warrant hanging over him, Ntaganda was considered an obstacle to a possible peace deal with the Kinshasa government that a rival, more powerful faction of M23 had shown signs of warming to.
His removal from the battle theatre raises hopes of improved stability in a region where vast mineral resources have fuelled two decades of conflict across colonial-era boundaries which cut through ethnic groups and local politics.
Rwanda and Uganda, who U.N. experts have accused of supporting M23, have both repeatedly denied involvement.
Many Congolese are skeptical.
“Rwanda said it had no part in the conflicts in Congo. This person was found on its territory, making it all the way to the embassy. This proves there was complicity,” government employee Jule Ebombo said on the streets of Kinshasa.
Wars in the central African nation have killed about 5 million people in the past decade and a half and many eastern areas are still afflicted by violence from a number of rebel groups, despite a decade-long peacekeeping mission.
“Accountability must not stop with warlords like Ntaganda but should also include those who are backing them,” said Timothy Longman, the director of Boston University’s Africa Studies Center.
Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Nairobi, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Edmund Blair and Paul Casciato