Congolese rebel leader Nkunda held in Rwanda

Arrest came after Kigali's surprising deal with Kinshasha which is seeking his extradition to face charges of crimes against humanity.

Laurent Nkunda, leader of the rebel group, National Congress for the Defence of the People, on Dec 18 2008.
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Nairobi // The rebel general, Laurent Nkunda, who sparked panic in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) late last year when his forces threatened to overrun the region, has been arrested near the border with Rwanda. Gen Nkunda, whose rebellion threatened to extend one of the world's worst atrocities, surrendered peacefully after retreating from a joint Rwandan-Congolese operation on Thursday, his spokesman, Bertrand Bisimwa, said by satellite phone from eastern DRC yesterday. "I can confirm he has been arrested," said Mr Bisimwa, a senior aide to the dissident general. Gen Nkunda's seizure marks an incredible turnaround for the Tutsi rebel commander, who has gone from being the most powerful military leader in the area to being arrested by his former allies. A UN report in December accused the Tutsi-led government in Rwanda of supplying arms and money to Gen Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). Gen Nkunda was detained on Rwandan soil after fleeing from Bunagana, one of his Congolese mountain strongholds, according to the UN. There was confusion last night over his whereabouts as unconfirmed reports said he had been repatriated to the DRC, while UN officials indicated he was in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. Crowds gathered at the border in the Congolese city of Goma yesterday afternoon after rumours circulated he was to be handed over. There is no extradition treaty between the two countries but officials loyal to Gen Nkunda feared he would be marched across the border and handed over regardless. A spokesman for the government of Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa welcomed the general's arrest and said it would seek his extradition to face charges of crimes against humanity. The rebel commander appears to have been caught by a rapidly changing diplomatic landscape that has seen the DRC government sign an unexpected deal with its adversary, Rwanda, and proceed immediately to a joint operation against rebel groups that have terrorised the North Kivu province displacing up to a million people. The terms of that deal are unknown, even to the UN, with both countries confirming only that Rwandan forces had been given permission to enter the DRC to pursue Hutu rebel groups, which have been based there since fleeing the aftermath of the genocide in 1994. The arrival of around 4,000 Rwandan troops in DRC has startled observers of the two long-time enemies. A Rwandan army spokesman yesterday described Gen Nkunda as a "barrier" to the "smooth running of the joint operation". Gen Nkunda has long been the number one threat to the government in Kinshasa, while Rwanda has been keen to hunt down remnants of the Hutu genocide. It appears the two countries have overcome their mutual suspicion and made a deal to eliminate both problems in one operation. The agreement appears to have completely wrong-footed Gen Nkunda, who had previously been fighting the same Hutu remnants, known as the FDLR, in the name of protecting the Tutsi minority in the DRC. However, the general seems to have overplayed his hand in late October when his forces launched a lightning attack that routed the Congolese army in North Kivu and threatened to overrun the city of Goma, the headquarters of the UN mission, Monuc, and the centre of international aid operations in the region. The ensuing humanitarian crisis sparked an international outcry and put immense pressure on Kigali and Kinshasa to settle their differences. Rwanda has come in for particularly strong criticism and stood to lose some of the foreign aid on which it depends. Gen Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi and former psychology student, was previously seen as either a proxy for Rwanda or Kigali's staunchest ally. He moved to Uganda in the 1990s where he joined the Rwandan Tutsi army and later drove Hutu forces out of Rwanda after the genocide. He then led a powerful Rwandan-backed rebel group during the 1998-2003 war in the DRC, afterwards joining the Congolese national army. He soon quit the army in 2004 to set up the CNDP, after claiming that Hutu extremists were targeting Tutsis. In recent weeks he lost control of the CNDP after falling out with fellow commanders who wanted to make peace with the government. * The National

Both nations have said the Rwandans are in Congo as part of an operation to hunt down and disarm thousands of mostly Hutu ethnic fighters who fled to Congo in the wake of Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Mr Nkunda took up arms several years ago with backing from formerly close ally Rwanda, claiming he needed to protect minority Tutsis from the Hutu militias. Analysts say Rwanda and Mr Nkunda's own commanders had grown irritated by Mr Nkunda, viewing him as a flippant, authoritarian megalomanic who had allegedly embezzled money from rebel coffers. Earlier this month, Nkunda's ex-chief of staff, Bosco Ntaganda, formed a splinter movement and last week announced his forces would work together with Congo's army to fight the Hutu militias and eventually integrate into the army. Mr Ntaganda may have turned on his former boss because he was afraid months of growing distrust might have prompted Mr Nkunda to turn him over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, where he is wanted for the alleged forced conscription of child soldiers in the northern Ituri region five years ago. Though details of the agreement to allow Rwandan troops on Congo soil have not been made public, analysts speculate the government may have promised not to hand Mr Ntaganda over for extradition in exchange for his co-operation. Rwanda has been under international pressure for months to use its influence over Tutsi rebels to end the conflict, and the breakthrough agreement may have been borne out of the split within Mr Nkunda's movement that both Congo and Rwanda were quick to exploit.

* AP