Former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba of the Democratic Republic of Congo said he was headed Wednesday for Kinshasa to throw his hat into the ring for a December presidential election after spending 11 years abroad — most of them behind bars.
"En route to the land of my ancestors, my homeland," Bemba said on Twitter during the night. A photo of the 55-year-old Bemba boarding a private jet in Belgium accompanied the tweet.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague in June overturned a 2016 conviction against Bemba for five counts of war crimes committed by his militia in the Central African Republic in 2002-03.
Bemba had vowed to return to Kinshasa to file his election bid as candidates must physically be in the country to lodge their applications.
On Monday, the governor of Kinshasa said he would ensure security and ordered 10 policemen to guard Bemba after his arrival, an official in his MLC party said.
A hefty police contingent was deployed Wednesday — a holiday in the DR Congo — on Kinshasa's main arteries and around the headquarters of Bemba's party, Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), an AFP journalist reported.
The ICC overturned on appeal an initial 18-year term for war crimes and crimes against humanity for Bemba, who has spent a decade behind bars.
Bemba, now a senator, had been in Belgium — the DRC's former colonial power — since the ICC acquittal.
The DRC is in the grip of a crisis over the future of President Joseph Kabila, who has ruled the country since 2001 and has remained in office, despite a two-term constitutional limit that expired in December 2016.
He has remained in power under a constitutional clause that enables a president to stay in office until his or her successor is elected.
Kabila, who has ruled since 2001 and defeated Bemba in the 2006 election, has refused to spell out whether he will seek a new term in office in the crucial December 23 election.
The DRC, a mineral-rich country but one of Africa's most volatile countries, has never known a peaceful transition of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960 — and some experts fear that the December election may trigger a bloody conflict.