By John Kanyunyu and Joe Bavier
GOMA, Congo (Reuters) - Rwanda and Congo on Friday announced the arrest in Rwandan territory of Congolese Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda in a joint move aimed at bringing peace to conflict-torn eastern Congo.
Nkunda, who was detained late on Thursday during a Congolese-Rwandan military operation against rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, has led a Tutsi rebellion since 2004 and is wanted for war crimes.
Congo's government said they would seek Nkunda's extradition from Rwanda, his former backer, and that his detention could end the activity of one of the most powerful and feared eastern rebel groups, recently split by a leadership dispute.
Congolese and Rwandan military commanders said Nkunda was arrested after he tried to resist the joint Congolese-Rwandan operation launched this week to hunt Rwandan Hutu FDLR militiamen operating in Congo.
More than 3,500 Rwandan troops have crossed into Congo in the operation, marking unprecedented cooperation between the Great Lakes neighbours after years of suspicion and hostility.
Wars, rebellions and ethnic violence since 1998 have killed more than 5 million Congolese, holding back the development of the huge former Belgian colony in central Africa, which is rich in minerals such as copper, cobalt, coltan, gold and uranium.
"Ex-general Laurent Nkunda was arrested on Thursday, January 22 at 2230 hours while he was fleeing on Rwandan territory after he had resisted our troops at Bunagana with three battalions," Congolese and Rwandan military commanders said in a statement.
But a rebel associate of Nkunda, Jean-Desire Muiti, disputed that account, saying the rebel leader had gone to Rwanda late on Thursday after being "called for consultations."
Rwandan military spokesman Jill Rutaremara said Nkunda, the founder and leader of the Tutsi rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), was being held at Gisenyi.
Diplomats and analysts said the arrest of Nkunda, coupled with the joint offensive against the Rwandan Hutu rebel FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), would help to bolster confidence between Congo and Rwanda. They have accused each other in the past of supporting hostile armed groups.
"It's pretty obvious by now that this is part of the deal between Kigali and Kinshasa to tackle both the FDLR and CNDP at the same time," independent Congo analyst Jason Stearns said.
Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende said Congo would seek Nkunda's extradition for trial. "He is Congolese. He committed his crimes in Congo," Mende said.
Nkunda's leadership of his CNDP rebel group had been challenged this year by dissident rebel commanders who last week ended hostilities with the Congolese government.
"I would think that Nkunda's days as CNDP leader are now over. The CNDP's future is uncertain," Stearns told Reuters.
Human rights groups said they would be watching how Rwanda and Congo dealt with Nkunda. His fighters are accused of mass killings and rapes, and recruitment of child soldiers.
"He needs to be held to account in a trial that meets fair trial standards," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Congo researcher with Human Rights Watch.
International Criminal Court prosecutors have a war crimes arrest warrant for Bosco Ntaganda, Nkunda's military chief who broke with him recently and is backing the Congolese-Rwandan operation against the FDLR. But a spokeswoman for the ICC Prosecutor declined to say if Nkunda would be prosecuted.
Many ordinary Congolese welcomed his arrest. "He must be brought back to Congo and face justice for his acts," said local Congolese pastor Crispin Kombozi.
The Rwandan-Congolese anti-FDLR operation follows international pressure for an end to conflict in Congo's east.
Many of the FDLR's 6,000 fighters took part in Rwanda's 1994 genocide in which Hutu soldiers and militia slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The FDLR presence in east Congo has been widely viewed as a root cause of the violence there.
Late last year, Nkunda, who said his rebels were fighting to defend Congo's Tutsi minority against the FDLR, led his CNDP guerrillas in a big anti-government offensive in North Kivu.
The United Nations, which has 17,000-strong peacekeeping force in Congo, fears civilians could suffer if fresh fighting breaks out.