Bemba arrested for war crimes

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The arrest for war crimes of Congo's exiled former Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba ends his career as a rival to President Joseph Kabila, and his supporters denounced the move as a plot to remove him from active politics.

Bemba, a former rebel warlord who was defeated by Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo's 2006 election, was detained in Brussels on Saturday by Belgian authorities executing an International Criminal Court warrant for his arrest for war crimes allegedly committed in the Central African Republic.

Condemning his arrest, Bemba's Congo Liberation Movement (MLC) party, his former rebel group, said it had been deliberately timed to take place as Congo's opposition was preparing to consecrate him as its emblematic formal spokesman.

"(The MLC leadership) notes with regret the politicisation of the judicial process undertaken by the International Criminal Court prosecutor," the MLC said in a statement. It demanded the Belgian authorities free Bemba, who is an elected senator.

But some analysts played down Bemba's political influence back home, saying he had already been sidelined since April last year when he fled his mineral-rich country into exile.

Bemba left saying he feared for his life after clashes in Kinshasa between his militia and Kabila's presidential guard. Kabila's supporters said he was guilty of violent treason.

"He's been out of the country for over a year, and parliament and the opposition have been getting along with business without him. So I don't think it will really affect the political landscape," a Western diplomat in Kinshasa said.

As runner-up to Kabila in the 2006 election, Bemba commanded strong political support in the Lingala-speaking west of the vast, central African state. Remnants of his MLC former rebel group are also concentrated in northwest Equateur province.

"We received this news with shock and consternation ... We must now tighten ranks. Mr Bemba is innocent until proven otherwise," Bemba's spokesman Moise Musangana said in Kinshasa.

Bemba's MLC party, which holds 64 seats in Congo's 500-member national assembly and 14 of the 108 Senate seats, called on its members and the Congolese people to "mobilise ... to save our young democracy", but announced no concrete moves.