By MIKE CORDER
FILE – In this Jan. 16, 2009 file photo, Bosco Ntaganda, seated center, holds a press conference with Congo Interior Minister Celestine Mboyo, right, in Goma, Congo, as rebel leader Ntaganda agreed to work with the Congolese government. The government of Rwanda said Monday, March 18, 2013, that Ntaganda, who had been on the run in neighboring Congo, had turned himself in to the United States Embassy in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Ntaganda has become one of Africa’s symbols of impunity. Despite an outstanding warrant from the International Criminal Court, which indicted him on war crimes in 2006, he became a general in the Congolese army, living in an upscale villa and playing tennis in his spare time.(AP Photo/T.J. Kirkpatrick, File)
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Rwandan-born warlord Bosco Ntaganda was taken into custody by the International Criminal Court on Friday after giving himself up in the African country earlier this week and was being flown to The Hague to stand trial on charges of overseeing atrocities in eastern Congo a decade ago.
The announcement brought to an end Ntaganda’s time as one of the court’s longest-standing fugitives nearly seven years after he was first indicted and was a crucial step in bringing to justice one of Africa’s most notorious warlords.
Nicknamed “The Terminator” because of his reputation for ruthlessness in battle, Ntaganda became a symbol of impunity in Africa, at times playing tennis in eastern Congo apparently without fear of arrest.
Despite his 2006 ICC indictment, Ntaganda joined the Congolese army in 2009 as a general following a peace deal that paved the way for him and his men to be integrated into the military. He was allowed to live freely in the provincial capital of Goma, where he also dined at top restaurants.
Last year, however, the agreement between the former warlord and the Congolese government disintegrated, and he and his troops defected, becoming known as M23 and battling Congolese government troops in the country’s jungle-clad east.
Ntaganda is believed to have turned himself in after becoming vulnerable when his M23 rebel group split into two camps last month over the decision to bow to international pressure and withdraw from Goma late last year. Ntaganda and another rebel leader, Jean-Marie Runiga, had opposed any pullout, but a rebel general, Sultani Makenga, ordered a retreat and initiated peace talks with the Congo government.
Ntaganda was turned over to ICC staff in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where he gave himself up at the U.S. Embassy on Monday. He is the first indicted suspect to voluntarily surrender to the court’s custody.
Ntaganda was taken out of the embassy amid tight security. Security forces were stationed along the main road to the airport, and there was an increased presence of armed troops at the airport.
An official at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly told The Associated Press that ICC officials arrived aboard a private jet.
“They were given time to ask Ntaganda a few questions. At noon, all embassy workers were asked to leave to allow a clear passage,” the official said.
Ntaganda faces charges including murder, rape, sexual slavery and using child soldiers in brutal fighting in the eastern Congo region of Ituri in 2002-2003. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, welcomed his transfer as a great day for victims in Congo.
“Today those who have long suffered at the hands of Bosco Ntaganda can look forward to the future and the prospect of justice secured,” Bensouda said in a statement.
When he arrives in the Netherlands, Ntaganda will be taken to a cell in the court’s detention unit to await his arraignment, likely sometime next week, before a panel of judges. He will be given a medical checkup and appointed a defense attorney.
The court thanked the U.S. and Rwanda — neither country is an ICC member state — for their role in Ntaganda’s detention.
“This operation would not have been possible without the support of the Rwandese authorities,” the court said in a statement.
Rights groups also welcomed Ntaganda’s arrest.
“Bosco Ntaganda’s arrival in the Hague will be a major victory for victims of atrocities in eastern Congo and the local activists who have worked at great risk for his arrest,” said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Ntaganda’s expected trial will underscore the importance of the ICC in providing accountability for the world’s worst crimes when national courts are unable or unwilling to deliver justice.”
Ntaganda was first indicted in 2006 on charges of recruiting and using child soldiers. In July last year, the court issued a second arrest warrant accusing Ntaganda of murder, rape, sexual slavery, persecution and pillaging in 2002-2003 in the eastern province of Ituri.
Prosecutors call Ntaganda the “chief of operations” of the Union of Congolese Patriots and its armed wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, known by their French acronyms UPC and FPLC, which aimed to establish political and military domination for the Hema tribe over resource-rich Ituri.
Prosecutors accuse Ntaganda of crimes including the massacre by his rebel forces of some 800 people in 2002-2003.
According to prosecutors, his rebels used the same brutal tactics in each village they attacked — surrounding the settlement and shelling it with heavy artillery before going house-to-house to slaughter survivors with guns, machetes, spears and knives. The rebel fighters allegedly raped women and abducted them to turn into sex slaves during the attacks.
Prosecutors say Ntaganda “planned and commanded scores of coordinated military attacks against the Lendu and other non-Hema tribes.”
The former leader of the UPC/FPLC, Thomas Lubanga, last year became the first person convicted in the International Criminal Court’s 10-year history. He was found guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers in fighting in Ituri and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. He has appealed his conviction.
The alleged leader of a Lendu tribe militia in Ituri, Mathieu Ngudjolo, was acquitted in December of atrocities in Ituri.
While getting Ntaganda to The Hague is a significant step for the court, several of its highest-profile suspects remain at large, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for genocide in Darfur province, and Joseph Kony, leader of the shadowy Ugandan rebel movement the Lord’s Resistance Army.
“As we welcome progress in one case, others also subject to ICC warrants in the region remain at large,” Bensouda said. The international court has no police force and relies on cooperation of states to arrest and transfer suspects.
Associated Press writer Jason Straziuso in Kigali, Rwanda, contributed to this story.