Rebel group: Congo warlord wanted control of M23

Mar 28, 2013, 10:02 AM EDT
Rwandan-born warlord Bosco Ntaganda is seen during his first appearance before judges of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Tuesday March 26, 2013.
(AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — A spokesman for a Congolese rebel group said Thursday that rebel fighters in the M23 group were trying to kill warlord Bosco Ntaganda, who fled Congo and turned himself in to a U.S. Embassy last week before being transferred to the International Criminal Court.

Rene Abandi said Ntaganda tried to "influence the chain of command" but went too far when he challenged M23 military chief Sultani Makenga.

Fierce clashes between rival factions of M23 earlier this month left Makenga with the upper hand and triggered the chain of events that forced Ntaganda to give up his freedom after nearly seven years as a fugitive warlord wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.

On March 18, days after losing a fight with an M23 faction loyal to Makenga, Ntaganda showed up the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda and asked to be transferred to the ICC. This week he made his first court appearance at The Hague.

"What shocked Gen. Makenga was this fight which was the stupidity of Ntaganda," Abandi said from the rebel stronghold of Bunagana in eastern Congo. "After that our goal was just to neutralize him because he was causing problems. He tried to influence the movement from outside."

It remains unclear how Ntaganda ended up in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, or what motivated him to surrender. Abandi said they believe he sneaked into Rwanda through a jungle crossing that is not heavily policed by Rwandan border officials.

"He passed through an area where there is no official border, near the Virunga National Park," Abandi said.

Ntaganda, the boss of a rebel group that was M23's precursor, had lived a relatively free life in the eastern Congolese town of Goma, allegedly occupying a villa there and even playing tennis. An ethnic Tutsi born in Rwanda, he was first indicted in 2006 by the ICC for allegedly recruiting child soldiers during a 2002-03 conflict in Congo's eastern Ituri province. A second arrest warrant issued last July accused him of crimes including murder, rape, sexual slavery and pillaging.

For M23, according to Abandi, Ntaganda's exit from the Congo left the group stronger even as it dimmed hopes for a peace process that had been under way in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, since December. Those talks are now on hold, with both the Congolese and M23 delegations saying they are holding consultations.

M23 had split at the end of February following a dispute among the leaders of the movement when Makenga dismissed the political head of the movement, Jean-Marie Runiga. Both men then formed their own factions, which have been fighting since.

The fight between M23 factions divided the group's peace delegation and led to the ouster of its leader, Francois Rucogoza, who is now afraid to return home, according to Chrispus Kiyonga, the talks' Ugandan mediator.

M23 is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army last April. The rebels accuse Congo's government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army. In turn, the government accuses M23 of violating that agreement by taking up arms instead of talking. Even as human-rights groups charge M23 with numerous human-rights violations in eastern Congo, regional leaders have urged the Congolese government to listen to the "legitimate grievances" of M23.

According to Abandi, Ntaganda's side spread rumors that Makenga was secretly doing business with the government in Kinshasa even as a delegation from M23 negotiated peace with the Congolese government in neighboring Uganda. When those claims failed to sow discord among the fighters, he said, Ntaganda then tried to challenge Makenga militarily.

"Gen. Makenga won the fight," he said. "The morale of the troops is now high. They are very proud of their general."

There is no international arrest warrant out for Makenga, but he is under U.N. sanctions and rights groups say he has committed crimes similar to those attributed to Ntaganda.