updated 3/17/2006 6:27:03 PM ET 2006-03-17T23:27:03

The International Criminal Court took its first suspect into custody Friday, flying in a Congolese warlord accused of atrocities during one of Africa’s most brutal wars.

It was a major step for the court, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, enabling it to start its first trial nearly four years after setting to work.

An arrest warrant for Thomas Lubanga was issued on Feb. 10 but kept secret until the aircraft bringing him to the Netherlands left Congo’s airspace.

Lubanga was arrested March 19, 2005, and imprisoned in Kinshasa, where he was initially to face national proceedings.

Instead, he will be tried for war crimes, including recruiting child soldiers, at the ICC’s newly completed courtroom in The Hague.

Violence has continued between militias, rebels and government troops though the 1998-2002 war has formally ended. Some 50,000 people have been killed in fighting while 3 million more have died of strife-induced hunger and disease.

“Mr. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese national and alleged founder and leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, was arrested and transferred to the International Criminal Court,” a statement said.

The union, known by its French acronym UPC, “launched a campaign of arbitrary arrests, executions and enforced disappearances” against political opponents, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a July 2003 report.

'Systematic' campaign
Hundreds were allegedly murdered. “Many fled and others went into hiding. Wherever the UPC took control, it initiated a campaign against the ’enemy.’ The campaign was systematic and often involved torture and apparently was authorized at the most senior levels of the UPC leadership,” the report said.

Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch, who interviewed Lubanga in October 2004, described him as “a key player in crimes that ravaged Ituri province in 2002-03.”

Dicker said Lubanga denied allegations of atrocities when he met him and “kept saying there were others.”

Dicker called the transfer “a positive first step,” but said Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo must go after government officials in Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.

Fight for resources
“The interethnic tensions were exacerbated and manipulated by Uganda and Rwanda as they jockeyed over control for the resource-rich regions of Ituri province in northeastern Congo,” he said.

Lubanga will appear before a trial judge in a wing of a Dutch prison complex. He will have access to an attorney and will be formally charged during a public hearing.

He is the first suspect from Congo to be indicted by the court since its jurisdiction began in July 2002. The ICC has indicted five Ugandan rebels, but one was killed in battle and the four others have evaded capture.

In Congo, both sides in the war have been accused of atrocities, including decapitation, torture and rape. Just a year ago, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland called Ituri the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Child guards
For several years, Lubanga was a feared warlord around Bunia, Ituri’s capital. Often flamboyant, he danced on tabletops during news conferences and was protected by children carrying Kalashnikovs, some as young as 10.

In 2004, Lubanga moved from Bunia to establish his militia as a political party in Kinshasa, from where authorities accused him of sending orders to his fighters.

The Foreign Ministry of France, the former colonial power in the region, praised the court’s custody of Lubanga as an “important step in the fight against impunity, which has reigned too long in the Great Lakes region” of Africa. France’s army helped transfer Lubanga to the ICC, the Foreign Ministry said.

An investigation into war crimes in the Ituri province was opened in 2004 after the prosecutor was given jurisdiction by the Congolese authorities.

The ICC, established by the 1998 Rome Statute, is fiercely opposed by the United States but supported by 100 other countries, including most of the European Union. It has no police force and relies on national authorities to arrest and transfer suspects.

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