A Ugandan rebel commander who surrendered in central Africa will be tried by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, a Ugandan military official announced Tuesday.
Dominic Ongwen, 35, one of the top commanders in the Lord's Resistance Army rebel group, surrendered last week and urged other rebels to do the same.
The LRA, led by warlord Joseph Kony, was notorious for abducting thousands of children to fight, slicing off the lips and ears of children, and massacring villagers in a two-decade reign of terror. For several years the rebel group has been hiding in the Central African Republic.
"The rebels prefer children of 14 to 16, but at times they abduct children as young as 8 or 9, boys and girls alike," Human Rights Watch said in a report on the LRA in 1997, when it was at the height of its activities. "They tie the children to one another, and force them to carry heavy loads of looted goods as they march them off into the bush. Children who protest or resist are killed. Children who cannot keep up or become tired or ill are killed. Children who attempt to escape are killed."
Ongwen's surrender has raised hopes that he may provide information leading to Kony's capture. He handed himself over to a rebel militia in the Central African Republic, who passed him on to U.S. military advisors and African Union forces who have been combing the country's forests for years in the hunt for Kony.
Ugandan military spokesman Paddy Ankunda said Ongwen would be transferred from the Central African Republic to the International Criminal Court at the Hague for prosecution. The court issued an arrest warrant for Ongwen in 2005.
"Dominic Ongwen will be conveyed to the Hague by CAR authorities," Ankunda said on Twitter, using the acronym for the Central African Republic.
"Victims will get justice as much as Ongwen. Arrangements for his transfer are being made and it will be CAR that will transfer him," Ankunda told Reuters.
Ugandan officials last week said they wanted to see Ongwen tried in Uganda, in a sign of cooling relations between Uganda and the International Criminal Court. Other African countries, including Kenya and Rwanda, also have opposed the court.
Kenya elected two men as president and vice president after they were indicted by the court for crimes against humanity. The case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recently collapsed.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni initially referred the LRA case to the International Criminal Court in 2003, but has grown increasingly critical of the court, recently calling on African leaders to quit it.
Ongwen, the son of two school teachers, was abducted in 1990 by the LRA at the age of 10 while walking to school and forced to become a child soldier. He rose through the ranks and was known as one of the LRA's most ruthless commanders, according to Human Rights Watch.
Presidential spokeswoman Lindah Nabusayi dismissed reports that Museveni was considering offering Ongwen amnesty. She said the president could give amnesty to rebel combatants who gave up fighting but not those involved in crimes against civilians.
"The president has no prerogative and does not claim to have it to pardon terrorists who have abused the sanctity of human life," Nabusayi told Ugandan media.
Ongwen said in an interview on CAR radio that he surrendered because Kony wanted to kill him, according to Agence France-Presse.
"I realized that I was wasting my time in the bush. I have studied the LRA and found that the LRA has no future," he said. Addressing the remaining rebels, he said: "You all know how brave I was, but if I decided to come out, then what are you still doing there?"
He said Kony "only wants to be chief and for you to work for him like a slave, for him and his family."
The United States had placed a $5-million bounty on Ongwen's head, but the reward won't be paid since Ongwen surrendered of his own accord.