GOMA, Congo (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila announced on Wednesday that authorities would arrest a serving army general wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes.
"I want to arrest Bosco Ntaganda because the whole population wants peace," Kabila said during a trip to eastern Congo where Ntaganda has remained a divisive figure at the heart of the unrest long after the official end of a 1998-2003 war.
The ICC has been seeking Ntaganda's arrest for six years on charges he conscripted children to fight in a bloody ethnic conflict in northeastern Congo that grew out of a broader civil war. Ntaganda denies involvement in war crimes.
Kabila's announcement marked a reversal for the Congolese government which had previously resisted calls to arrest Ntaganda, saying he was the lynchpin for a fragile peace deal that integrated his fighters into the national army in 2009.
However, the president stopped short of promising his extradition to The Hague, announcing he would instead stand trial in Congo on unspecified charges.
"I do not work for the international community. What I want to do is for the Congolese population," Kabila said, adding that Ntaganda would be tried in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province where the general has his stronghold.
Several soldiers loyal to Ntaganda have deserted over the past week, and Ntaganda's exact whereabouts were unclear on Wednesday.
"We're looking for him ... He and all the other soldiers who defected will be arrested and brought to justice," said the head of the Congolese army, General Didier Etumba.
'WORDS INTO ACTION'
Former rebel leader Thomas Lubanga, Ntaganda's co-accused in the ICC case, last month became the first person to be found guilty by the international court.
His conviction sparked calls, including from the United Nations and United States, for Ntaganda to be apprehended.
In a statement sent to Reuters on Wednesday, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Ntaganda "should be arrested, for the sake and the security of victims and citizens in the whole region."
Beyond the ICC charges, rights groups have accused Ntaganda of being behind human rights violations spanning a decade.
Troops under his command have been implicated in the deaths of hundreds of civilians in the northeastern Ituri district. In 2008, his fighters went door-to-door in the town of Kiwanja during a two-day massacre in which at least 150 people were killed.
The United Nations has also said Ntaganda operates a criminal network smuggling minerals across the border into Rwanda, despite international efforts to stamp out so called "conflict minerals" in the region.
"(Kabila's) announcement is a welcome step in the right direction, but he now needs to turn words into action," Anneke van Woudenberg, senior Congo researcher for campaign group Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
Leaders of Congo's small Tutsi minority group that forms Ntaganda's support base, warned against arresting him, in a letter addressed to Kabila last month.
"The Tutsi community considers that the arrest of General Bosco (Ntaganda) will undermine the entire peace process in Congo," the letter said.
(Reporting by Kenny Katumba in Goma and Sara Webb in Amsterdam; Writing by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Mark John, Joe Bavier and Robin Pomeroy)