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Former Congolese VP Facing War Crimes

Former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba is facing five counts of war crimes before the International Criminal Court. Lawyers for the former rebel leader said he did not control his fighters in the neighboring Central African Republic.

Jean-Pierre Bemba looked like one of the winners in the last war in Congo, gaining a vice presidency as part of a 2003 peace deal with the government in Kinshasa.

Elections that followed put him in a head-to-head runoff with President Joseph Kabila. But Bemba lost that vote and was charged with treason after his militia fought with government troops in the capital.

Now, he is in The Hague facing three counts of war crimes and two counts of crimes against humanity for abuses allegedly carried out across the border in the Central African Republic by rebels from his Movement for the Liberation of Congo.

"According to the warrant of arrest Bemba is responsible for alleged crimes committed in the territory of the Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003," said Sonia Robla, the International Criminal Court's press officer. "The judges found reasonable grounds to believe that he was the leader and commander in chief of the MLC - a group which committed crimes or systematic attacks against the population of the country, during which rape, torture, pillage and outrages of dignity were committed."

Bemba ran his rebellion from the Congolese city of Gbadolite, known as "Versailles in the Jungle" for the series of palaces built by Mobutu Sese Seko during more than 30 years in power - an extravagance that flew-in Chinese craftsmen to hand detail an emperor's compound at at time when the people of what was then Zaire were among the world's poorest.

Bemba's family benefited from the kleptocracy that defined Mobutu's rule. His father was one of Mobutu's closest business associates. That success sent Bemba to private schools in Brussels and landed him a job as Mobutu's personal assistant in the mid 1990's.

But Bemba's personal wealth from electronics, coffee, and mining also grew through his relationship with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

In an interview in Gbadolite nine years ago, Bemba acknowledged that President Museveni was backing his rebellion, but stressed that while Ugandan soldiers were training his men in the use of heavy weapons, it was Congolese who were doing the fighting.

"We are not puppets. We do not see even the reason why Ugandans should die. It is a Congolese war. But they are our best allies, it is true. And we respect and thank them for what they are doing for us Congolese," he said.

At the time of that interview, Bemba's rebels were already across the river in the Central African Republic's capital of Bangui where civilians were beginning to complain about human-rights abuses.

Bemba said it was the Congolese army of then-President Laurent Kabila that was attacking civilians.

"We are not there to kill them. We are protecting them, really protecting them. All these moves that you see of refugees in Congo-Brazzaville and Bangui came from these attacks by Kabila to show you that they do not believe in Kabila. They do not like Kabila. That is why they run away. But I think that you may start to see the move of people coming back and so because they know that MLC soldiers are there. And they know the MLC soldiers. Our conduct code is very strict," he added.

Bemba's lawyers now say his rebels were not under his control when they helped put down a 2002 coup attempt in Bangui. Instead, they say those Congolese fighters were led by then-Central African Republic president Ange-Felix Patasse.

When President Patasse was finally ousted in 2003, the new government in Bangui brought charges against both him and Bemba. That led to an investigation by the International Criminal Court and the subsequent war-crimes indictment.

Prosecutors say they will prove a direct link between Bemba and alleged atrocities committed in the Central African Republic. They say Bemba organized systematic rape and murder to terrorize civilians so they would not support the overthrow of the Patasse government.