KINSHASA, Congo — In a marked turnaround, Congo's president called Wednesday for the arrest of a notorious ex-warlord who has been serving in the country's army despite an international indictment on war crimes charges.
Bosco Ntaganda is accused of using child soldiers for fighting in northeastern Congo from 2002 to 2003. He was first indicted on war crimes charges in 2006 by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court.
President Joseph Kabila said Wednesday that Ntaganda should be arrested and face a military tribunal in Congo, presidential spokesman Andre Ngwej told The Associated Press by telephone. Kabila said the military doesn't need to hand Ntaganda over to the ICC.
"We ourselves can arrest him because we have more than 100 reasons to arrest and judge him right here (in Goma), and if not here, then in Kinshasa or elsewhere in our country," Kabila said in the Swahili language.
The president made the comments during a meeting with community leaders in the country's remote eastern province of North Kivu.
In the Hague, Netherlands, international court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Ntaganda is a fugitive and needs to be brought to justice. "He should be arrested for the sake and the security of victims and citizens in the whole region," Moreno-Ocampo said.
In the past, Kabila had refused calls to hand over Ntaganda, arguing his cooperation was essential to keeping the peace in the troubled east of the country where numerous local militias and foreign rebels operate.
Ntaganda was integrated into the Congolese army along with unknown hundreds of troops under a peace deal ending a 2009 rebellion that was negotiated as the rebels were about to take the provincial capital of Goma.
The integration has allowed large portions of eastern Congo to come under the dominion of Ntaganda's troops, who are largely from the Tutsi ethnic group and are accused of raping, looting and otherwise brutalizing other communities.
Kabila also noted Wednesday that the army was not supposed to be tribal.
Anneke van Woudenberg, a Human Rights Watch expert on Congo, said that Kabila's government is legally bound to transfer Ntaganda to The Hague after referring the crimes committed in Congo to the ICC in 2004. The Congolese government will have to submit a request to the ICC, if it now wants to try Ntaganda domestically before a military tribunal, she said.
"There is a lot of value in judicial trials taking place close to where the crimes occurred, but after years of conflict Congo's justice system remains weak and is unlikely, at this stage, to be able to try Ntaganda's crimes in a free and fair process," she said.
The Congolese president's announcement follows clashes this week between troops loyal to Ntaganda and other soldiers in the Congolese army in the eastern town of Rutshuru, according to the army spokesman for eastern Congo, Maj. Sylvain Ikenge.
Ikenge said that a colonel and a major responsible for the mutiny had fled into the bush with a small number of troops. "But everything is calm in Rutshuru today and 90 percent of the troops have remained loyal to the government," he said. It was unclear how other troops under Ntaganda's command might react to any arrest of Ntaganda.
In a 2010 interview with The Associated Press, Ntaganda vigorously denied the allegations and said he did not fear arrest on the ICC charges.
"I don't think that the U.N. is able to arrest me in Congo because they have arms that I also have and that can protect me when they try to arrest me," he said. "If it is established that I committed crimes, I won't hesitate to answer them to a court in my country. But I will never accept answering charges by the International Court."
Pressure has been mounting for Ntaganda's arrest since the International Criminal Court convicted another Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga last month of using child soldiers, the first judgment in the court's 10-year history.
The ICC prosecutor stepped up the pressure against Congo last month after Lubanga's conviction, saying he would travel there to press Kabila to hand over Ntaganda.
Moreno-Ocampo also has said that he plans to add charges of murder and rape to Ntaganda's indictment, a move that was welcomed by human rights groups.
Associated Press writers Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Michelle Faul and Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.