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(New York) - The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo should arrest Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel commander charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said today in a public letter to President Joseph Kabila.

Human Rights Watch expressed deep concern that the government is considering appointing Ntaganda to a top position in the Congolese army, despite the accusations that he had responsibility for using child soldiers, as well as for committing several atrocities in Ituri district in northeastern Congo.

"For senior Congolese officials to hold a news conference with an alleged war criminal is hardly the way to promote respect for the law," said Param-Preet Singh, counsel to the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. "Kabila's government has a legal obligation to arrest Ntaganda, not to promote him."

Since April 2008, Ntaganda has been wanted by the ICC at The Hague for the war crime of enlisting child soldiers and using them in hostilities. Ntaganda is a co-accused in the trial of Thomas Lubanga, another Congo militia leader, which began on January 26.

In early January 2009, Ntaganda, formerly the military chief of staff for the rebel National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), claimed he had supplanted Laurent Nkunda as the head of the group. On January 16, in a joint news conference with the Congolese minister of the interior and the head of the police, he declared that instead of waging war on the Congolese national army, he would join its troops in fighting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group with some leaders who participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 that has been operating in eastern Congo.

Congo is a party to the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, and thus has a legal obligation to cooperate with the court, including apprehending persons under arrest warrant and surrendering them to the court.

In addition to the ICC charges, Ntaganda has been accused of commanding troops that massacred 150 civilians at Kiwanja in North Kivu province in November 2008. He also commanded troops accused of having killed at least 800 civilians on an ethnic basis in the town of Mongbwalu, in Ituri district in 2002, after his troops took control of the rich gold mines in the area.

In 2005, Ntaganda was put on the United Nations sanctions list for having violated an embargo against arms deliveries to Congolese rebel groups.

"Giving an officer accused of such heinous crimes responsibility in military operations increases the likelihood of more attacks on civilians," said Singh. "The government is risking the lives of its people, as well as ignoring its legal obligations."

Human Rights Watch also sent letters to the European Union, the United States and members of the UN Security Council expressing deep disappointment that they had not publicly called on the DRC government to arrest Ntaganda, and urging them to use their influence with President Kabila to carry out the arrest.

Human Rights Watch also called on the United Nations Mission in the Congo (MONUC) to assist in arresting Ntaganda, as requested by the Congolese government in May 2007. MONUC has a mandate to help the government restore accountability in Congo and to ensure that those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity are held to account.

"ICC arrest warrants should not be ignored when they are politically inconvenient," said Singh. "The arrest of Ntaganda is important for Congo and for international justice worldwide."

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