Congo ex-rebel chief arrested for war crimes
Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Congolese former rebel warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba was arrested by Belgian authorities in Brussels on Saturday on an International Criminal Court warrant for war crimes committed in the Central African Republic, reports Reuters.

Bemba, the defeated contender in Democratic Republic of Congo's 2006 presidential election, is accused by the ICC of leading Congolese rebels who waged a campaign of rape and torture in Central African Republic in 2002/2003.

"Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, President and Commander in Chief of the Mouvement de Liberation du Congo (MLC), is alleged to be criminally responsible for four counts of war crimes and two counts of crimes against humanity committed on the territory of the Central African Republic from 25 October 2002 to 15 March 2003," the court said in a statement on its Website.

Bemba, whose 2006 election defeat by Joseph Kabila turned him into Congo's most prominent opposition figure, fled into exile last year saying he feared for his life. His fighters had battled in the streets on Kinshasa with Kabila's presidential guards in clashes that killed several hundred people.

Bemba, who had been living in exile in Portugal, has denied the war crimes accusations.

The ex-rebel chief is the first person arrested under an ICC investigation in Central African Republic which was opened by the court's Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo in May 2007.

The ICC is continuing its inquiries into what it says was a widespread and systematic attack against Central African Republic's civilian population by Bemba's MLC rebels "during which rape, torture, outrages upon personal dignity and pillaging were committed".

Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo thanked Belgium for executing the ICC arrest warrant against Bemba. "This arrest was a complex and well-prepared operation," he said.

The ICC, which is based in The Hague and started work in 2002 as the world's first permanent war crimes court, is also pursuing war crimes prosecutions against suspects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and in Sudan, relating to its war-torn western Darfur region.


Bemba's MLC insurgents, who also fought in Congo's 1998-2003 war, intervened in Central African Republic to back then President Ange Felix Patasse against rebels led by Francois Bozize. Bozize subsequently toppled Patasse in a 2003 coup and is the current head of state in the former French colony.

ICC Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo visited Central African Republic in February to hear testimony from victims of the sexual violence which accompanied the fighting in the capital Bangui in 2002/2003 between government troops and rebels.

Rapes had outnumbered other crimes, with young girls and old women being gang raped in public places, the ICC said.

"Mr. Bemba's arrest is a warning to all those who commit, encourage or tolerate sexual crimes," Moreno-Ocampo said.

"There are no excuses for hundreds of rapes. There are no excuses for the rape of a little girl, with her parents watching. There are no excuses for commanders ordering, authorizing or acquiescing to the commission of rapes and looting by their forces. We have evidence that Mr Bemba committed crimes," he added.

"I went to CAR, I met the victims, those who survived the violence, those who survived AIDS. We cannot erase the scars. But we can give them justice ... The victims will tell their stories in Court," Moreno-Ocampo said.

There was no immediate reaction to Bemba's arrest in Belgium from the Congolese government, which has recalled its ambassador from Brussels in a growing diplomatic dispute between the central African giant and its small former colonial ruler.

Relations between the two countries have been strained recently since Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht criticized Kabila's government over human rights, corruption, and its dealings with China during a visit to Congo last month.

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