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DRC: Former Rebels Loyal to Ntaganda Defect From Army

Indicted war criminal Bosco Ntaganda poses for a photograph during an interview with Reuters in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (File Photo)
Indicted war criminal Bosco Ntaganda poses for a photograph during an interview with Reuters in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (File Photo)

Hundreds of soldiers aligned with a former rebel leader in eastern Congo have defected from the military. The movement has to do with concerns that the government may soon arrest their commander, who is accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

The tension in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo centers around one man: former rebel-turned-military commander, Bosco Ntaganda.

The former leader of the rebel group known by its acronym CNDP (National Congress for the Defense of the People), Ntaganda became a general in the Congolese army in 2009 as part of a peace deal integrating his group into the military.

He is also wanted by the ICC to face charges of war crimes committed during the country's civil war during the last decade. And while Ntaganda has enjoyed the protection of the government so far, President Joseph Kabila is under increasing pressure to arrest him.

Jason Stearns, the director of the Usalama Project, which researches conflict in eastern Congo, says the recent defection of troops loyal to Ntaganda shows he is taking the threat of arrest seriously.

“From his point of view, the message he wants to get across is that if you try to arrest me, I will react violently," Stearns. "There's a lot of brinksmanship, in other words. To what extent it will escalate into full-fledged violence its not entirely clear.”

Stearns says soldiers loyal to Ntaganda have joined the general in Goma, his home city in North Kivu province, to provide his personal protection.

They may also be setting up bases in rural areas, to which he could possibly escape and avoid arrest.

Stearns says recent threats of violence have been little more than rumor and speculation. But he says the situation could intensify.

“So whereas Bosco may be the linchpin of this whole situation, there is a broad alliance of people who are linked to him; that means any action by Bosco or against Bosco could very quickly escalate throughout the provinces,” he said.

Ntaganda is wanted by the ICC for recruiting child soldiers as a deputy commander in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), an armed political group that fought in northern Congo during the civil war.

Pressure to arrest him has intensified since the senior leader of the UPC, Thomas Lubanga, was convicted by the ICC for the same crimes last month.

The Congolese government has refused to apprehend Ntaganda, however, saying that he is critical to the peace process.

Human Rights Watch researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg says that no longer seems to be the case.

“I think events of the past week have shown this is not a man who's interested in peace," said Van Woudenberg. "This is a man who just wants his own protection and doesn't want to be held to account for the crimes he has committed.”

Ntaganda supported President Kabila's re-election in a small area of the eastern Congo, which may have added to the president's reluctance to turn him over to the ICC.

But after observers widely condemned the vote as chaotic and flawed, Kabila has sought to reassert his authority and prove his legitimacy to the international community.

Ntaganda, for all of his defensive posturing, seems to have received the message that he would be an ideal sacrifice.