Six years of freedom unexpectedly came to an end at 7:30 a.m. on Monday morning, when the 39-year-old warlord nicknamed "The Terminator" showed up at the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda's capital, Kigali. He came to the embassy by car after making his way over the 150 kilometers (90 miles) of road separating Kigali from his base in eastern Congo. Ntaganda presented himself to officials at the embassy and asked to be handed over to the International Criminal Court, which issued its first arrest warrant for him in 2006. A U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and insisted on anonymity, said Ntaganda remained ensconced at the embassy on Tuesday.
Ntaganda's surprise move has prompted intense speculation. Why did he do it?
Ntaganda is believed to have been backed by Rwanda, which provided financial and logistical support to the ethnic Tutsi rebels he commanded in Congo's mineral-rich east, according to several reports by the United Nations Group of Experts.
A leading theory among those following Congo is that Ntaganda lost the support Rwandan officials at the same time that he fell out with his comrades in the field following a split in his M23 rebel movement.
"My best guess is that his options came down to go to The Hague or be killed," said Tony Gambino, the former director of USAID in Congo.
A crucial factor may be Rwanda's alleged backing of Ntaganda's M23 rebels.
In December, the U.N. experts disclosed detailed evidence of how the rebels were backed by Rwanda. After the rebels seized the Congolese city of Goma last November, the U.N. investigators issued a day-by-day outline of the invasion, describing how Rwanda equipped, trained, advised, reinforced and directly commanded the rebellion, including sending four companies from Rwanda's 305th brigade across the border to conduct operations.
Rwanda has fiercely denied the accusations, but several countries including the United States and the United Kingdom have cut off some aid to Congo's smaller, but more developed neighbor as a result.
The M23 rebels held Goma, but then decided to withdraw, apparently as a result of international pressure.
Ntaganda became more vulnerable in recent weeks when the M23 rebel group divided into two camps. Ntaganda and M23 president Jean-Marie Runiga, apparently opposed the decision to pull out of Goma. But M23 Gen. Sultani Makenga ordered the retreat and initiated peace talks with the Congo government. It appears the rebel group split over this issue, according to analysts of Congo.
Those who until recently fought alongside him say that Ntaganda fled Congo over the weekend after his men lost an important battle against his former colleagues who split off last month from the M23 rebel movement.
Ntaganda crossed from Congo into Rwanda on Saturday following the defeat of his troops against the M23 general who opposed him, Sultani Makenga, according to Jean-Marc Banza, the head of Congo's intelligence agency in the North Kivu province of eastern Congo.
After entering Rwanda around 5 a.m, Ntaganda tried to reach out to his friends in the Rwandan army, said Stanislas Baleke, a political official in the M23 movement, who knows Ntaganda. "But once he was in Rwanda they told him they could not guarantee his security," said Baleke.
According to Baleke, Ntaganda was told by his contacts in the Rwandan army to go to the U.S. embassy as the United States is not a member of the International Criminal Court and has no obligation to hand Ntaganda over to the court.
In Washington late Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that Ntaganda had walked into the U.S. Embassy in Kigali earlier that morning. "He specifically asked to be transferred to the ICC in The Hague," Nuland told reporters. "We're currently consulting with a number of governments, including the Rwandan government, in order to facilitate his request." Nuland said there were no advance U.S. talks with Ntaganda, but that Washington was trying to meet his request.
"I'm not in a position to speak for him as to why he chose us to facilitate his passage to The Hague," she said. "Presumably, when we complete this process, he'll be in a position to speak for himself."
Ntaganda was first indicted in 2006 by the International Criminal Court for conscripting and using child soldiers during a 2002 to 2003 conflict in Congo's Ituri province. A second arrest warrant issued last July accused him of a range of crimes including murder, rape, sexual slavery and pillaging.
Gouby reported from Goma, Congo. Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, Michelle Faul in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Bradley Klapper in Washington, also contributed to this report.