Congolese Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was arrested in Rwanda after he resisted a joint Rwandan-Congolese military operation designed to pacify eastern Congo, officials said on Friday.
The arrest of Nkunda, who has led a Tutsi rebellion in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since 2004, occurred during the joint Congolese-Rwandan operation which was launched this week to hunt Rwandan Hutu militiamen operating in Congo.
Wars, rebellions and ethnic violence since 1998 have killed more than five million Congolese, holding back the development of the huge former Belgian colony in central Africa, which is rich in minerals like copper, cobalt, coltan, gold and uranium.
“Ex-general Laurent Nkunda was arrested on Thursday, January 22 at 2230 hours while he was fleeing on Rwandan territory after he had resisted our troops at Bunagana with three battalions,” Congolese and Rwandan military commanders said in a statement.
The statement, read at a news conference in the eastern border city of Goma, gave no more details. A Congolese minister said Congo’s government would ask Rwanda to extradite Nkunda.
A Congolese army colonel, who asked not to be named, said Nkunda and rebels loyal to him had fought against Rwandan and Congolese troops when they arrived at Bunagana, a town on the border with Uganda in Congo’s North Kivu province.
Nkunda’s leadership of his Tutsi rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) group had been challenged this year by dissident rebel commanders who last week ended hostilities with the Congolese government.
The commanders’ statement urged Tutsi fighters loyal to Nkunda to disarm and integrate into the Congo government army.
In the joint operation, more than 3,500 Rwandan troops have crossed the border into Congo to join Congolese government forces in trying to disarm Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels.
The operation, marking unprecedented cooperation between the Great Lakes neighbours after years of mutual suspicion and hostility, follows international pressure for an end to more than a decade of conflict in Congo’s eastern borderlands.
Congo had in the past accused Rwanda’s government of backing Nkunda, while Rwanda had denounced Congolese army cooperation with the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda).
The FDLR, which emerged after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, has been widely viewed as the root cause of more than a decade of violence in east Congo, which has included Nkunda’s rival Tutsi insurgency.
Late last year, Nkunda led his CNDP fighters in a big anti-government offensive in North Kivu province which displaced more than a quarter of a million civilians, creating a humanitarian emergency in one of the world’s most violent zones.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s government welcomed the news of Nkunda’s arrest.
“We are very happy with the arrest of General Laurent Nkunda. We ask the Rwandan government to respect international law and extradite General Nkunda to Congo,” said Agriculture Minister Norbert Kantitima, who was in Goma with a delegation of government ministers.
Congo’s government and international human rights groups have accused Nkunda and his fighters of war crimes, including mass killings and rapes and recruitment of child soldiers.
The United Nations, which has 17,000-strong peacekeeping force in Congo that has been largely excluded from the joint Congolese-Rwandan operation, has expressed fears that civilians could suffer if fighting breaks out.