The Hague, Netherlands, Dec 13- France on Wednesday arrested a member of Africa’s top footballing body on war crimes charges in the Central African Republic, the International Criminal Court said.
Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona, a former minister, is accused of being a top coordinator of armed groups in the conflict-hit country, the Hague-based court said in a statement.
Ngaissona “has been arrested by the authorities of the French Republic pursuant to an arrest warrant” issued by the court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, it added.
Ngaissona was controversially elected to the executive board of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) general assembly in February. His spokesman told AFP he was also Central African Republic’s football chief.
The ICC issued a warrant for Ngaissona for coordinating so-called anti-Balaka militias which emerged after civil war broke out in 2013 with the declared aim of defending Christian communities from mostly Muslim rebels.
France, the former colonial power, sent 2,000 troops to quell the rebels, winding down the operation in 2016 after President Faustin-Archange Touadera was elected.
Since then, thousands of people have been killed in deadly clashes between the rival armed groups and more than a million forced to flee their homes, UN figures show.
The warrant issued in December is for “alleged criminal responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the western part of the Central African Republic”, the court said.
The court had previously “submitted a request to the French authorities for the arrest and surrender of Mr Ngaissona to the court upon completion of necessary national proceedings.”
– ‘Major’ militia leader –
The arrest comes just weeks after another suspected Central African militia leader — Alfred Yekatom, known as Rambo — was arrested and deported to The Hague.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said it welcomed the arrest.
“Ngaissona is a major anti-Balaka leader. After the arrests of Rambo and Ngaissona, the ICC must now also deal with the ex-Seleka leaders,” said Pierre Brunisso, FIDH coordinator in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
Ngaissona was the “most senior leader and the ‘National General Coordinator’ of the Anti-Balaka” and therefore responsible for crimes in several parts of the country, the ICC said.
The crimes include murder, torture, mutilation, intentionally targeting and displacing civilians, pillaging and enlisting child soldiers, it added.
Before the violence erupted, Ngaissona briefly served as minister of sport under former president Francois Bozize, whose overthrow in 2013 by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels triggered the conflict.
Ngaissona, who is in his 50s, has described himself as the “political coordinator” of the anti-Balaka groups.
In 2015, he was barred from running in CAR’s presidential elections over concerns about his role in the violence, but has previously said that “everything I’ve done has been for the good of my country.”
In February, he was elected to the CAF board seat representing eight central African nations, winning by 30 votes compared to his Gabonese rival, who secured 23.
The CAF said at the time that his candidacy for the board respected “strict statutory criteria” but added that the body did not have an ethics committee.
“If the allegations were true, I wouldn’t be here today,” Ngaissona told AFP in February, saying he didn’t want “to mix politics and sport.”
More than five years after the war, CAR remains a deeply poor and volatile country.
Touadera can only claim control over a fraction of the country. Most of the territory remains in the sway of militia groups and violence is entrenched.
In Bangui, the head of an anti-Balaka chief who had been among the first to accept enrolment in a post-conflict disarmament and reintegration programme, said Wednesday he feared the arrest could spark violence.
“This is too much,” he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We showed goodwill by laying down our weapons, but it’s twice now that a former anti-Balaka (leader) has been arrested. People are starting get upset, but we are appealing for calm while we await further information.”