(BANGUI, Central African Republic) — Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen says he surrendered to stand trial for war crimes because he did not want to “die in the bush.”
Ongwen, a top leader of Joseph Kony’s notorious LRA, was taken into custody in early January. He was one of five LRA commanders indicted by the International Criminal Court and now only Kony remains at large. The three others have died.
In his first words since his surrender, Ongwen explained why he turned himself in.
“I did not want to die in the bush, so I decided to follow the right path and listen to the calling of the ICC,” said Ongwen, in the Acholi language on a video taken by the Ugandan army.
“The (Ugandan) government did its part by calling us out of the bush and now I have also done my part by coming out,” said Ongwen, adding that “Joseph Kony told me bad things about the ICC.”
Ongwen was one of the LRA’s top officers and his surrender is widely seen as a severe blow to Kony and the LRA, which for more than 25 years has terrorized central Africa with a campaign of killings, torture, kidnappings and using child soldiers and sex slaves.
Kony started the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda but after being pushed out by the Ugandan army he spread the fight into Congo and Central African Republic. The LRA has dwindled to just a few hundred fighters, according to Ugandan reports.
The Ugandan army and other African forces are hunting down Kony and his fighters with help from American military advisers. The U.S. also placed a $5 million reward for information leading to Ongwen’s capture.
Kony and the LRA gained international notoriety in 2012 when a video of its alleged crimes by the group Invisible Children was seen by millions on the internet.
“I heard the call from the (Ugandan) government to abandon the rebellion so that is what I did, I abandoned,” said Ongwen.
Ongwen has been turned over to the ICC and is expected to be flown from Central African Republic to The Hague to stand trial.
Central African Republic’s Seleka rebels say they’re entitled to a $5 million award from the U.S. because they handed over Ongwen to American troops.
The Seleka rebels say they captured Ongwen and then handed him over to the American forces who are assisting the hunt for Kony.
Ongwen identified himself as “Moussa” and only later did the rebels learn they had handed over an international war crimes suspect with a reward on his head, said Mounir Ahamat, a Seleka officer in the Sam-Ouandja area.
It is not known how likely it is that the United States will hand over millions of dollars to an armed rebel group blamed for scores of human rights abuses and thousands of civilian deaths.
Seleka — a loose alliance of rebel groups — united to oust Central African Republic’s longtime President Francois Bozize in March 2013 and install their leader as the country’s first Muslim president. They left power in January 2014 but their vicious rule sparked a violent backlash against Muslim civilians, leading to unprecedented sectarian fighting that continues to this day.
While Seleka is technically disbanded, the fighters continue to clash with Christian militias throughout the largely anarchic country.
AP Video Producer Khaled Kazziha contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.