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U.S. seeks swift transfer of Congo warlord to Hague court

Fugitive Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda attends rebel commander Sultani Makenga's wedding in Goma December 27, 2009. REUTERS/Paul Harera
Fugitive Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda attends rebel commander Sultani Makenga's wedding in Goma December 27, 2009. REUTERS/Paul Harera

By Jenny Clover

KIGALI (Reuters) - The United States is seeking the swift transfer of a Congolese warlord from its embassy in Rwanda to a war crimes tribunal for a trial that could help eastern Democratic Republic of Congo inch towards peace.

Bosco Ntaganda gave himself up to the U.S. Embassy in Kigali on Monday after a 15-year career that spanned a series of Rwandan-backed rebellions in eastern Congo.

He asked to be sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague where he faces war crimes charges.

Ntaganda's departure from the conflict zone, where he was a leading commander in the M23 group fighting Congolese forces, could improve prospects for stability in a region where vast mineral resources have fuelled two decades of conflict.

But the trial of Rwandan-born Ntaganda could also prove an embarrassment to the Rwandan government which has denied charges by a U.N. panel that accused it of backing the M23 rebels. The trial could take months or even longer to start.

"This is an opportunity to advance a little bit of peace and stability in the eastern Congo," Johnnie Carson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told a conference call on Ntaganda's situation.

He also said Rwanda could use the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to a February deal signed in Addis Ababa that called for regional states to help end conflict in Congo.

He said the Rwandan government had offered "appropriate assurances" that it would not interfere in the process of transferring Ntaganda, who needs to be transported through the capital to the airport in coordination ICC authorities.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during a visit to the United Nations on Wednesday that Rwanda "will work to make what the U.S. Embassy needs in relation to Bosco Ntaganda's case happen as fast as possible."

Speaking from Washington, Carson said he wanted Ntaganda moved "as quickly as possible" but did not give a precise timeline. Practical arrangements were still being worked out and ICC officials were heading to Rwanda to help with those logistics.

"The next 48 hours or so will be critical," he said.

OBSTACLE TO PEACE?

ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, speaking to reporters in Paris, said the court was working closely with those on the ground to ensure Ntaganda was transferred as quickly as possible.

"It's logistics now ... A couple of days," she said, adding that court procedures meant the start of the trial would take time. "I can't speak for the judges, but in my experience three months minimum."

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.

Ntaganda's whereabouts had been unknown after hundreds of his fighters fled into Rwanda or surrendered to U.N. peacekeepers at the weekend following their defeat by a rival faction of M23 rebels in the mineral-rich eastern Congo.

With an arrest warrant hanging over him, Ntaganda and his faction were seen as an obstacle to a peace deal between the M23 and the Congolese government. Jason Stearns of the Rift Valley Institute, a research body working in the region, said he might have feared being sold out.

But his decision to give himself up may improve the prospects for a deal that the M23 faction he opposed has shown signs of warming to.

Born in Rwanda, Ntaganda grew up in Congo before fighting alongside Rwandan Tutsi rebels who seized control of the small central Africa country, ending the 1994 genocide in which over 800,000 people died.

For Rwanda, the worries of being implicated by Ntaganda in any testimony when on trial may be outweighed by the desire to avoid being seen as a nation seeking to protect an ICC indictee.

"It's possible the Rwandans will be nervous about what he might say if he got on the stand in the Hague," said Ben Shepherd, an analyst at Chatham House, a London-based international affairs institute.

But Shepherd said the relationship between Ntaganda and Rwanda was ambiguous so Kigali might be confident it could avoid being implicated or might simply be hoping it would take years before he stood trial.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Edmund Blair and Richard Lough in Nairobi; Editing by Michael Roddy and Eric Walsh)

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