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By Jenny Clover
KIGALI (Reuters) - A Congolese warlord known as "the Terminator" and accused of murder, rape and other atrocities was flown out of Rwanda on Friday to face war crimes charges in the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Bosco Ntaganda walked off the street and gave himself up at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali in a surprise move on Monday after a 15-year career that spanned a series of Rwandan-backed rebellions in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He was most recently a commander in the M23 rebel movement but his position weakened after the group split in two.
His removal from the conflict creates an opportunity to secure a peace agreement to end the year-old rebellion in a region dogged by conflicts.
Ntaganda's surrender was the first time an ICC suspect had voluntarily handed themselves over to be in the court's custody.
He asked stunned U.S. officials at the embassy to be transferred to the court, where he will face charges of recruiting child soldiers, murder, ethnic persecution, sexual slavery and rape during the 2002-3 conflict in northeastern Congo's gold mining Ituri district.
His whereabouts had been unknown after hundreds of his fighters fled into Rwanda or surrendered to U.N. peacekeepers last weekend following their defeat by a rival faction of M23 rebels in the mineral-rich eastern Congo.
"Bosco thought his choice was the ICC or probable death," said Jason Stearns of the Rift Valley Institute.
VICTORY FOR VICTIMS
Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said Ntaganda flew out of Kigali in the custody of ICC officials following cooperation between the Rwandan, U.S. and Dutch governments.
A Reuters witness had seen a blacked-out U.S. Embassy vehicle under police escort drive along the perimeter of Kigali international airport. Shortly after, a private jet took off.
The International Criminal Court confirmed he was on his way to the Netherlands and said his first appearance before the war crimes tribunal would be to confirm his identity.
With an arrest warrant hanging over him, Ntaganda and his backers were seen as an obstacle to peace between the M23 and the Congolese government that the rival faction had shown signs of warming to.
"Bosco's arrest won't bring peace to the eastern Congo, but Bosco's arrest does spell a victory in the battle against impunity and the dismantling to one of the barriers to a peace process in the country," Stearns said.
The trial of Rwandan-born Ntaganda could prove an embarrassment to the Rwandan government, which has denied charges by a United Nations panel that it backs the M23 rebels.
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda might seek to add additional charges related to rebellions that followed the alleged Ituri crimes, analysts said.
Wars in Congo have killed about five million people in the past decade and a half, and many eastern areas are still afflicted by violence from a number of rebel groups despite a decade-long U.N. peacekeeping mission.
"Bosco Ntaganda's arrival in The Hague will be a major victory for victims of atrocities in eastern Congo," said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa in Nairobi and Thomas Escritt and Sara Webb in Amsterdam; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Angus MacSwan)