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Congo's 'Terminator' heads to war crimes court

DR Congo warlord Bosco Ntaganda at his mountain base in Kabati, Democratic Republic of Congo, on January 11, 2009
DR Congo warlord Bosco Ntaganda is pictured at his mountain base in Kabati, DR Congo, on January 11, 2009. Ntaganda has left Rwanda with International Criminal Court officials for trial in The Hague, according to Rwanda's foreign minister.

Congolese war crimes suspect Bosco Ntaganda, dubbed "The Terminator", took off from Rwanda Friday headed to The Hague where he faces charges ranging from murder and rape to using child soldiers.

"General Ntaganda took off from Kigali airport this afternoon in the custody of ICC officials," Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in a statement, referring to the International Criminal Court.

Ntaganda is wanted on seven charges of war crimes and three of crimes against humanity allegedly committed during his years as a warlord in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

He shocked the world when he walked into the US embassy in Kigali on Monday and asked to be sent to The Hague.

"This is the first time that a suspect has surrendered himself voluntarily to be in the ICC's custody," the court said in a statement, thanking American, Dutch and Rwandan authorities for their support in his transfer.

Ntaganda was allegedly involved in the brutal murder of at least 800 people in villages in the volatile east of the DR Congo, using child soldiers in his rebel army and keeping women as sex slaves between September 2002 and September 2003.

After he arrives at Rotterdam airport on Friday evening, Dutch police will escort the suspected war criminal to the ICC's detention unit in The Hague, a journey of around 25 kilometres (17 miles).

Ntaganda, about 40 years old, will become the fifth African in the ICC's custody. He will receive a medical checkup and then appear before judges in the presence of a defence lawyer, the ICC said.

"The date of the initial appearance hearing will be announced soon," the ICC added.

A source close to the ICC told AFP that Ntaganda was likely to make an initial appearance before judges either on Tuesday or Wednesday.

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda welcomed news of Ntaganda's transfer, saying: "This is a good day for victims in the DRC and for international justice."

"Today those who are alleged to have long suffered at the hands of Bosco Ntaganda can look forward to the prospect of justice taking its course," she said in a statement.

The ICC is the world's only permanent criminal court set up to try genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The top US diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, said earlier this week that bringing Ntaganda to trial would send a "clear signal" to other rebel leaders.

"It will take off the battlefield one of the most notorious rebel leaders," Carson said.

Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch said the arrival of Ntaganda at the ICC "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."

The expected trial will show the ICC's importance in "providing accountability for the world's worst crimes when national courts are unable or unwilling to deliver justice," she added.

Once a commander of the M23 rebels, Ntaganda is believed to have crossed into Rwanda at the weekend, along with several hundred fighters loyal to him, after they suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a rival faction.

He will arrive in The Hague almost four years after the signing of the March 23, 2009, peace agreement with Kinshasa, the failure of which sparked a mutiny by the rebels-turned-soldiers who set up the M23 movement named after that deal.

M23 has been fighting against the DR Congo army in the restive and mineral-rich North Kivu province since last April. The rebels briefly seized the key town of Goma in November, but pulled out after a few days.

Kinshasa and the United Nations have both accused Rwanda of backing the M23, a claim Kigali has always denied.

Analysts said that Ntaganda's transfer for trial would not have a major impact on peace for the eastern DR Congo.

"Bosco's arrest won't bring peace to the eastern Congo, but Bosco's arrest does spell a victory in the battle against impunity and the dismantling to one of the barriers to a peace process in the country," said Jason Stearns, author of books on the region.

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