December 12, 2018 / 1:57 PM / 3 months ago

France arrests Central Africa Republic war crimes suspect

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - French authorities have arrested an alleged militia leader suspected of war crimes in Central African Republic and will hand him over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, it said.

Prosecutors described Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona as the “senior leader” of the Anti-Balaka militia that carried out systematic attacks on the country’s Muslim population in 2013-2014.

Ngaissona, who denies wrongdoing, was elected in February to the executive committee of the Confederation of African Football despite objections from Human Rights Watch. It had named him as a leader of the Anti-Balaka in a report in 2016.

His arrest came soon after transfer of another CAR war crimes suspect, Alfred Yekatom, who faces allegations of deportation and torture of Muslims. He was detained and handed over to the ICC on Nov. 17.

The ICC said Ngaissona was suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, deportation, persecution, torture, attacking civilians, and recruiting child soldiers.

A chamber at the court “found reasonable grounds to believe Mr. Ngaissona is liable for having committed jointly with others... the abovementioned crimes,” the court said.

Albert Panda, vice president of the Central African Observatory for Human Rights, said Ngaissona’s arrest might encourage more witnesses to come forward. “This is new strong signal, especially for victims who are more and more encouraged to talk,” he said.

Pierre Brunisso, of the International Federation for Human Rights in Bangui, called it “a huge step forward for international justice and against impunity in CAR.”

Ethnic and religious conflict has raged for years in Central African Republic. Christian Anti-Balaka militias have been fighting mainly Muslim Seleka rebels after the rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in 2013. Thousands have died in the violence.

Investigations are ongoing into all parties to the conflict, said ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. “I am confident that ... Mr. Ngaissona will be transferred to the ICC in due course to face justice,” she added.

Reporting by Toby Sterling and Stephanie van der Berg; additional reporting by Edward McAllister in Dakar and Paul Lorgerie in Bangui; writing by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by John Stonestreet

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