The International Criminal Court published an arrest warrant Tuesday for Congolese militia leader Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted for the alleged forced conscription of child soldiers.
Ntaganda recruited children to fight in the Ituri region of eastern Congo from July 2002 until December 2003, the court said in a statement.
Ntaganda is still at large in Congo and reportedly is now chief of staff of the National Council for the Defense of the People. The group, known by its French acronym CNDP, is the political wing of rebel warlord Laurent Nkunda's militia in the North and South Kivu provinces of Congo.
"The CNDP is one of the groups against which there are credible reports of serious crimes committed in the two Kivu provinces — including sexual crimes of unspeakable cruelty," the statement said.
Nkunda has waged an insurgency in the provinces since 2004. Fighting intensified late last year, but eased after a Jan. 23 peace deal signed in the city of Goma that committed both sides to an immediate cease-fire.
Human Rights Watch said the arrest warrant gives Nkunda a chance to demonstrate his commitment to peace.
"If Laurent Nkunda is truly committed to the Goma peace agreement, then he should immediately deliver Ntaganda to the international court," Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch's Africa division, said in a statement. "Now is the time for Nkunda to put his professed commitment to human rights into action."
Tuesday's statement alleges that Ntaganda is a former ally of Thomas Lubanga, who was the first suspect taken into custody by the Hague-based court. He is due to go on trial in late June for allegedly using child soldiers.
'He must be arrested'
The arrest warrant was issued Aug. 22, 2006, but kept secret until Tuesday. It alleges that Ntaganda conscripted and enlisted child soldiers and sent them to fight in the rebel conflicts of eastern Congo when he was the deputy chief of staff of Lubanga's militia, the FPLC.
"Bosco Ntaganda committed crimes in Ituri; he is today in the Kivus. He must be arrested," Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in a statement.
"Like all the other indicted criminals in Uganda and in the Sudan, he must be stopped if we want to break the system of violence," he added. "For such criminals, there must be no escape. Then peace will have a chance. Then victims will have hope."
Five years after the end of back-to-back wars that destroyed much of Congo, sporadic violence has continued to plague the vast nation's eastern border region, which is divided up into zones controlled by rival factions.
Local militias regularly clash with one another, as well as with army forces and with perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide who fled over the border to eastern Congo's hills.
The court, the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, said it is investigating atrocities in North and South Kivu and the role of leaders who organized and financed militias in the region. Prosecutors expect to issue arrest warrants in coming months and years.
The court has no police force of its own and must rely on national authorities to arrest suspects and send them to its detention block in a Dutch jail. So far it has three suspects in custody, all of them from Congo.
Several arrest warrants issued
Human Rights Watch said that if Nkunda fails to hand over Ntaganda, U.N. peacekeepers in Congo should arrest him.
"An alleged war criminal wanted by the world's top court should not be allowed to walk free in the Congo," Van Woudenberg said.
Last weekend marked one year since the court issued arrest warrants for a Sudanese government minister and an alleged militia leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country's Darfur region.
Authorities in Khartoum have refused to turn the men over to the court.
The court has also issued arrest warrants for leaders of the notorious Ugandan rebel group Lord's Resistance Army, which has been fighting a 20-year insurgency in northern Uganda. However, authorities in Kampala have not arrested the rebels and are negotiating a peace deal that would include setting up a court to try them in Uganda rather than send them to The Hague.