Rwanda seizes rebel leader accused of war crimes in Congo
Rwanda has arrested the renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda in a dramatic reversal of its support for the warlord accused of triggering a wave of killings and attacks in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo last year that drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Nkunda was captured after he fled from Congo into Rwanda on Thursday night to escape a joint force from the two countries which had surrounded his military headquarters. Congo has asked Rwanda to hand him over to stand trial for war crimes .
The joint operation marked a significant shift in alliances in the region, and could mark the beginning of the end of the conflict in eastern Congo that has claimed five million lives through war and its effects.
Kigali had regarded Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) as a buffer to keep at bay a militia of Hutu extremist exiles responsible for the 1994 genocide of Rwanda's Tutsis. But Nkunda was more recently seen by Rwanda as a liability because it was held indirectly responsible for his crimes.
Nkunda's close ties to Rwanda go back to his days fighting in the rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which overthrew the genocidal regime and took power in 1994. He returned to Congo - or Zaire, as it then was - and was again drawn into collaboration with the RPF after it invaded Congo twice in the second half of the 1990s to fight the Hutu militias that had fled there after leading the genocide.
After Rwanda pulled out of Congo in 2003, it saw Nkunda's CNDP as a buffer against the Hutu force, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which had gained control of swaths of territory on Rwanda's border and kept up the mantra of genocide, threatening to exterminate Tutsis.
Nkunda, in the name of defending Tutsis, was bloodthirsty. His forces rampaged through cities such as Bukavu, murdering and raping. They also got into the mining business, getting rich from plundering gold, diamonds, and coltan, a crucial component of mobile phones.
In his heyday he was a charismatic leader, but as his power grew Nkunda became increasingly strange, greeting visitors to his headquarters dressed in white robes with his pet white goat in tow. He also started to lose the confidence of his men as his military decisions appeared to become more arbitrary and provoke not only his enemies but his allies.
Last week saw two dramatic and complementary developments. Nkunda faced a revolt within the CNDP, almost certainly engineered by the Rwandan and Congolese governments, with some of his officers saying they had removed him from command and would no longer fight Congolese forces. At the same time, about 3,500 Rwandan soldiers entered Congo to disarm the Hutu militias, the cause of much of the instability in the region, with the approval of the government in Kinshasa. In return, Rwanda agreed to help Congo neutralise Nkunda's CNDP.
The new-found co-operation between the two countries, which were at war for five years until 2003, comes after Congo once again surged to international attention late last year when Nkunda's forces seized territory, prompting another refugee crisis. Nkunda's forces were also accused of war crimes after they went through the town of Kiwanja, killing hundreds of the remaining men and some families. There was also pressure on Kinshasa to abandon its co-operation with the Hutu rebels.