DAKAR (Reuters) - A renegade Congolese general wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes has begun to recruit child soldiers again to fight the government, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation released on Wednesday.
General Bosco Ntaganda defected from Congo's army in April after President Joseph Kabila announced plans to arrest him, and fighters loyal to him have since recruited at least 48 children from villages in North Kivu, according to the report.
"Bosco Ntaganda is once again committing the very crimes against children for which the International Criminal Court has been demanding his arrest," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior HRW Africa researcher.
"Children and civilians in eastern Congo will remain at grave risk so long as Ntaganda is at large."
Clashes between Ntaganda's insurgent force, thought to number between 300 and 600, and the army have caused thousands to flee an area long plagued by myriad armed groups still using weapons from a 1998-2003 civil war.
Ntaganda had previously fought as a rebel in northeastern Congo in 2002-03, but he was integrated into the army along with other insurgents as part of a 2009 peace deal.
The ICC has been seeking his arrest since 2006 on charges of conscripting child soldiers in his rebel militia, and it announced new charges this week including murder, ethnic persecution and rape.
Kabila initially resisted calls for Ntaganda's arrest, saying he was a lynchpin in the fragile peace, but analysts and rights groups say Ntaganda has been operating criminal networks in eastern Congo responsible for further destabilizing the area.
HRW said its investigation showed at least 48 children under 18 years old, along with 101 young men under 20 years old, have been forcibly conscripted by Ntaganda's troops since April 19.
It said the army had forced Ntaganda's fighters to retreat in May into Virunga National Park, a vast forested area that is home to Congo's mountain gorillas.
(Reporting by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Louise Ireland)