A general who defected from the Congolese army last month has forced at least 149 boys and young men to join his mutinying forces, repeating the alleged acts for which he has long been wanted by the International Criminal Court, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch. At least 48 were under 18.
"They tied my hands with a rope. All of us were tied up. Then they marched us to the hill," a 17-year-old student told the human rights group, recounting an episode in which at least 32 high school students were rounded up. "They told us we would fight for Bosco."
Bosco Ntaganda has been wanted by the International Criminal Court for recruiting and using child soldiers while commanding a rebel group during Congo's civil war. Yet after the war ended, Ntaganda was brought into the army and ultimately promoted to general.
The long-standing calls to apprehend Ntaganda grew louder after the international court convicted former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga in March for using child soldiers, its first-ever verdict.
After Ntaganda defected from the army last month, taking hundreds of soldiers with him, his forces abducted children and young men to join them, witnesses and children told Human Rights Watch. Youths told the group they had been beaten and forced to walk in front carrying weapons and ammunition, putting them first in the line of fire if they were ambushed.
Fighters trying to stop boys from fleeing "put grenades on us and told us that if we moved, they would explode," a 16-year-old told Human Rights Watch.
President Joseph Kabila joined the calls to arrest him last month, a reversal for a government that had argued that integrating Ntaganda was needed to ensure peace after Congo's civil war. Earlier this week, the ICC prosecutor sought a new warrant on Ntaganda for added charges, including murder, rape and sexual slavery.
Ntaganda is believed to be in the Virunga National Park in eastern Congo.
"Now, more than ever, is the time to arrest him. His recent desertion ... has shown once again that he cannot be trusted; it is a renewed demonstration that power through violence only leads to more violence," ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the Associated Press earlier this week.
In addition to the terror inflicted on children, the mutiny and ensuing clashes between rebel forces and the Congolese military have pushed more than 8,200 refugees into neighboring Rwanda in less than three weeks, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Gen. Bosco Ntaganda is escorted by comrades on Jan. 11, 2009, at his mountain base in Kabati, northwest of Goma, in Congo. Credit: Lionel Healing / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images