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Congo police say several arrests made in connection with rights activist's death

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Several arrests have been made in connection to the killing this week of a leading Congolese human rights activist, a police commander in the country's capital said Saturday.

Gen. Jean-de-Dieu Oleko said that several police officers were arrested late Friday as part of a preliminary investigation into the death of Floribert Chebeya Bahizire. He would not give further details on those arrested.

The body of Bahizire, head of Voix des Sans Voix, or Voice of the Voiceless, was found in his car Wednesday in a suburb of Congo's capital. The rights group, one of the largest in Congo, said he appeared to have been strangled.

Also Saturday, a group of Congolese and international organizations called for independent inquiry into the death of Bahizire and the disappearance of his driver, Fidele Bazana Edadi.

"Responding to Floribert Chebeya Bahizire’s death with concrete actions that ensure justice is important not only to end impunity for attacks on human rights defenders, but also to help protect other Congolese human rights defenders and journalists who face intimidation, threats and harassment," the 55 Congolese and international rights organizations said in an open letter to Congo's President Joseph Kabila.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Africa Foundation were among those who signed the letter.

For more than 20 years, Bahizire had suffered a pattern of intimidation because of his work, Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights said Thursday. The U.N. also said that its peacekeeping mission in Congo is prepared to assist in an investigation, if requested.

The U.S. State Department Friday said that those responsible for the "apparent assassination" must be held accountable, and also called for a quick autopsy to find out how he died.

Amnesty International said Bahizire was last heard from Tuesday night, when he sent a text to a family member saying that he had just met with a senior police official and was headed home. Passers-by later found his body.

The rights groups and the U.N. all said they were concerned by a growing trend of harassment of human rights activists in Congo. In 2005, a human rights activist was killed in his home in the country's east. Since then, at least three journalists have been killed, and Human Rights Watch said none of the investigations into the deaths has been satisfactory.

For the past two decades, Voix des Sans Voix has worked to document human rights abuses across Congo, focusing on corruption in the military and foreign support for militias, according to the U.N.