Congo opposition leader arrested in Belgium

Relations between Belgium and its former colony Congo soured Sunday as the Democratic Republic of Congo's former vice president and opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was arrested near Brussels for his involvement in the Central African Republic, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague said.

Bemba led Mouvement de Liberation du Congo (MLC) forces in a "systematic attack against a civilian population" in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003, engaging in rape, torture and other crimes, the ICC alleged. He is also accused of committing similar crimes in Congo.

His MLC fighters intervened in the neighbouring Central African Republic when President Ange-Felix Patasse asked them to help put down a coup.

Bemba is the first person arrested in the ICC's investigation of war crimes there.

"Mr Bemba's arrest is a warning to all those who commit, who encourage or who tolerate sexual crimes," prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo said.

"There are no excuses for hundreds of rapes. There are no excuses for the rape of a little girl, with her parents watching.

"There are no excuses for commanders ordering, authorizing or acquiescing to the commission of rapes and looting by their forces. We have evidence that Mr Bemba committed crimes."

Following criticism of the situation in the DRC by Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht, the government in Kinshasa summoned its ambassador back from Brussels for consultations. It also closed its consulate in Antwerp.

De Gucht said on RTL-TVi television that Belgium subsidized the DRC to the tune of 200 million euros (315 million dollars) annually and added, "I find we have not only the right, but also the moral obligation to say what we think about the events in Congo - and they are not going in the right right direction at all."

Kinshasa reacted with a "resolute protest to the Belgian government."

De Gucht defended his comments Sunday, while Aid Minister Charles Michel said, "The issue is very serious, and discussions within the government will certainly be necessary."

Het Nieuwsblad op Zondag newspaper cited a Congolese diplomat as saying Sunday: "We are on the verge of a break between Congo and Belgium."

As recently as last month, De Gucht angered the Congolese by criticizing the corruption and "fabulous privileges of individuals" in the African country when he was talking about Belgian development aid.

The DRC has recently been liberating itself from its former colonial power and has signed substantial cooperation deals with China.

Bemba lost elections to Congo's President Laurent Kabila in 2006, and went into exile in Portugal in April 2007 after government troops routed his roughly 600 fighters in clashes in downtown Kinshasa which killed hundreds.

He was charged by the ICC on May 16, dpa reported.

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