KAMPALA/BANGUI (Reuters) - Uganda confirmed on Wednesday that U.S. forces in Central African Republic were holding Dominic Ongwen, a child recruit to the Lord’s Resistance Army who became a top commander of the rebel group and is wanted by the International Criminal Court.
The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday a man claiming to be Ongwen had surrendered to U.S.-African forces in Central African Republic (CAR), one of the last strongholds of a rebel group known for its use of extreme violence.
However, local Seleka rebels said they had captured Ongwen in fighting and handed him over to U.S. troops.
Both the State Department and Uganda said Ongwen’s arrest was a major blow to the LRA rebels. It was not immediately clear whether he would be sent to the court in The Hague or to Uganda, which has pardoned many LRA fighters.
“We can now confirm he’s the one and we can also confirm he’s in our custody at our base in Obo,” said Paddy Ankunda, Uganda’s military spokesman.
Since 2011, U.S. forces have been working alongside African troops to track down Joseph Kony, who has led the LRA since 1987 and is also wanted by the ICC for his role in a war that crippled northern Uganda and spread across the region.
The LRA, known for chopping off limbs as a form of punishment and for abducting young girls for use as sex slaves, was forced out of Uganda nearly a decade ago and is weakened. However, the United Nations blamed it for more than 150 attacks on civilians in CAR and Congo last year.
Mounir Ahmat, a commander of CAR’s mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group, said Seleka had captured Ongwen in early January near the eastern town of Sam Ouandja. “(He) wanted to escape but he came into the hands of our second team who arrested him.”
Analysts say the LRA abducted Ongwen as a 10-year-old on his way to school in Uganda. Having earned a reputation as a brave and ruthless fighter, he quickly rose through rebel ranks. He is now 34.
In 2005, the ICC indicted him on seven counts including murder and enslavement.
The Uganda-based Justice and Reconciliation Project said his unique status as both a victim and alleged author of war crimes could complicate future proceedings. Uganda has pardoned thousands of LRA fighters under a 2000 amnesty law but it is not clear whether this apply to ICC indictees.
An ICC spokesman said member states were obliged to cooperate with the court but that Uganda could launch a legal challenge to prosecute him on similar charges at home.
Ankunda said President Yoweri Museveni, a supporter-turned critic of the ICC, would decide which path Uganda would take.
Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam; Writing by Edmund Blair and Emma Farge; Editing by David Lewis and Gareth Jones