THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Former Congolese warlord and ex-presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba has been arrested in Brussels on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The International Criminal Court announced his arrest in a news release late Saturday, and said Bemba was head of a militia that supposedly committed atrocities in the 2002-2003 armed conflict in the neighboring Central African Republic.
The international court has been investigating allegations of mass rape and other war crimes committed in the Central African Republic between 2002 and 2003, including by Congolese rebels who were then controlled by Bemba.
Bemba, who also is a former vice-president of Congo, was the first person to be arrested in connection with that investigation opened last year, the court said.
"There are no excuses for hundreds of rapes," Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in a statement. "There are no excuses for the rape of a little girl, with her parents watching. There are no excuses for commanders ordering, authorizing or acquiescing to the commission of rapes and looting by their forces."
Central African Republic has suffered decades of army revolts, coups and rebellions since it gained independence from France in 1960. Poor and landlocked, the nation of 3.6 million is governed by President Francois Bozize.
Various fighting forces were inside the country when Bozize attacked and captured the capital in 2003 while ex-President Ange-Felix Patasse traveled overseas. They included Bemba's Congolese rebels.
Prosecutors with The Hague-based court first began analyzing possible war crimes in the Central African Republic in January 2005 at the request of the country's government. That analysis uncovered widespread killings, as well as a huge number of sexual violence cases.
Although the case grew out of the African government's allegations against Patasse and his commanders, the court is not limited to investigating just one side of the conflict.
Moreno-Ocampo's office presented evidence against Bemba to the U.N. panel of judges on May 16. charging him with crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Bemba, who was arrested in a suburb of the Belgian capital, fled to Portugal in April 2007 after he was accused of treason in Congo.
Bemba ruled a vast chunk of northeastern Congo during that country's 1998-2002 war as a warlord and rebel leader with help from neighboring Uganda. After a peace agreement ended the war, he became one of the country's four vice presidents in a reunited Congo.
In 2006, Bemba came in second behind President Joseph Kabila, who also was a former rebel.
Clashes pitting his militia against government troops broke out in Congo's capital in March 2007, killing nearly 200 people. While street battles raged, Congo's chief prosecutor issued a warrant for Bemba's arrest on charges of high treason, blaming him for the violence and accusing him of keeping the armed soldiers to mount an insurrection.