Congolese warlord 'keen to prove innocence at war crimes trial'

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The Hague (AFP) - Former Congolese warlord Bosco "Terminator" Ntaganda goes on trial Wednesday before the International Criminal Court for war crimes including the rape of child soldiers within his own rebel army.

The former leader of rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who turned himself in in 2013, faces 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity at his highly-anticipated trial before The Hague-based court.

Prosecutors say Ntaganda played a central role in savage ethnic attacks on civilians in the mineral-rich and restive northeastern Congolese province of Ituri in 2002-2003, in a conflict rights groups believe has left some 60,000 dead since 1999.

Ntaganda "recruited hundreds of children... and used them to kill and to die in the fighting," ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said.

Girl soldiers were "routinely raped," the prosecutor added.

But she brushed aside criticism that the court was targeting just one ethnic group for prosecution. "This trial is about Bosco Ntaganda and how he took advantage of the ethnic tensions in Ituri to gain power and money," she said.

Prosecutors have collected 8,000 pages of evidence and plan to call some 80 witnesses -- 13 of them experts and the rest victims.

Three of the victims to take the stand will be former child soldiers in Ntaganda's rebel Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), their lawyers said.

- 'Innocent' -

Ntaganda's lawyer Stephane Bourgon said his client would seek to prove his innocence before the ICC's judges.

"Mr Ntaganda maintains his innocence in respect of every charge laid against him. He intends to present a thorough defence," Bourgon told a press conference at the ICC's fortress-like headquarters in a suburb outside the city on Wednesday.

Ntaganda is "in good shape, he's doing fine, he is looking forward to having a chance to present his case."

It is the first time since the ICC opened its doors in 2003 that a suspect will be charged with raping and abusing women and children fighting within his own militia.

"Bosco Ntaganda is not only known... in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but also outside the region due to his reputation as a notorious person whose behaviour has raised alarm far beyond the Great Lakes region," Bensouda told journalists.

- 'The Terminator' -

Ntaganda, 41, was once one of the most-wanted fugitives in Africa's Great Lakes region until he unexpectedly walked into the US embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali in March 2013 and asked to be sent to The Hague.

He was the founder of the M23 rebel group that was defeated by the Congolese government in late 2013 after an 18-month insurgency in the vast Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu region.

Observers say Ntaganda was most likely fearing for his life as a fugitive from a rival faction within M23, but his motives for surrendering to the ICC remain unclear.

Also nicknamed "The Terminator", the once-feared rebel commander known for his pencil moustaches, cowboy hats and love of fine dining, faces 13 counts of war crimes and five of crimes against humanity. He has already pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The court had issued two arrest warrants against Ntaganda -- the first in 2006 and the second with additional charges in 2012.

He had managed to evade capture mainly because he had remained a powerful commander.

The Rwandan-born Ntaganda is accused over his role in attacks on a number of Ituri towns over a year starting in September 2002.

His former FPLC commander Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2012 on charges of using child soldiers, one of only two convictions by the court since it was set up 12 years ago.

Born in 1973, Ntaganda is among a dozen Africans who have been in the custody of the ICC, a court criticised for apparently only targeting leaders from the continent. His trial is set to be complex and last several months.

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