That all ended when the 39-year-old known as "The Terminator" suddenly turned himself in Monday to the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda and asked to be handed over to the International Criminal Court—a surprise move that followed a split in Ntaganda's rebel group and apparent loss of support from his backers in the Rwandan government.
"My best guess is that his options came down to go to The Hague or be killed," Tony Gambino, the former director of USAID in Congo, said of the about-face by Ntaganda, one of Africa's most-wanted men.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that Ntaganda would remain at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali while U.S. officials worked to "facilitate his transfer to The Hague at his own request."
Noting that Rwanda's Justice Ministry had promised safe passage, she said, "now it's a matter of working out the modalities, and that's going to take a little time."
Ntaganda, an ethnic Tutsi, was first indicted in 2006 by the ICC for allegedly building an army of child soldiers during a 2002-2003 conflict in Congo's eastern Ituri province. A second arrest warrant issued last July accused him of a range of crimes, including murder, rape,
Those who until recently fought alongside him say that Ntaganda fled Congo over the weekend after his men lost a key battle against fighters who split off last month from his M23 rebel movement.
Ntaganda was long believed to have been backed by Rwanda, which provided financial and logistical support to the ethnic Tutsi rebels he commanded in Congo's mineral-rich east.
After the rebels seized the Congolese city of Goma in November, U.N. investigators issued a day-by-day outline of the invasion, detailing how Rwanda equipped, trained, advised, reinforced and directly commanded the rebellion, including sending four companies from Rwanda's 305th brigade across the border to conduct operations.
Rwanda has fiercely denied the accusations, but several countries including the United States and Britain cut off aid to Congo's smaller, but more developed neighbor as a result.
Ntaganda became more vulnerable last month when the M23 split into two camps over the decision to bow to international pressure and withdraw from Goma late last year.
Ntaganda and another rebel leader, Jean-Marie Runiga, had opposed any pullout, but a rebel general, Sultani Makenga, ordered a retreat and initiated peace talks with the Congo government.
After entering Rwanda in the pre-dawn hours Saturday, Ntaganda tried to reach out to his backers in the Rwandan army, said Stanislas Baleke, a political official in the M23 movement who has links to Ntaganda. "But once he was in Rwanda they told him they could not guarantee his security," Baleke said.
Ntaganda was then told by his Rwandan contacts to go to the U.S. Embassy, he said, noting that the United States is not a member of the International Criminal Court and has no obligation to hand Ntaganda over to the court.
Nuland said the U.S. had no prior contact with Ntaganda or advance notice that he would turn up at the embassy. "It was a walk-in in the truest sense of the word," she said.
She declined to say why he chose the U.S. Embassy or whether he may have feared for his safety.
"I'm going to let him speak to his motives," she said. "He has now asked to go The Hague. That's a good thing we're trying to facilitate."
Gouby reported from Goma, Congo. Associated Press writers Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Michelle Faul in Johannesburg and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.