THE HAGUE (AFP) - Harrowing pictures of bodies littering a banana plantation Wednesday marked the start of the trial of warlord Bosco Ntaganda, accused of running a campaign of terror in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Nicknamed "The Terminator", Ntaganda denied 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity as he stood in the dock at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
Ntaganda is accused of orchestrating hundreds of deaths in savage ethnic attacks in the northeastern DR Congo between 2002 and 2003, as well as recruiting and raping child soldiers within his own rebel army.
ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened her case recounting the story of a man looking for his family after an attack in the Ituri region in February 2003.
"He saw a banana field where the trees had been cut, (and) amongst those trees lay many bodies," Ms Bensouda said.
"He searched through the dead bodies for a long time before discovering his dead son, a toddler, disemboweled and his throat slit," she said, adding the rest of the man's family suffered a similar fate.
Prosecutor Nicole Samson showed judges graphic images of bodies dumped in the banana plantation after being brutally slaughtered.
"Bosco Ntaganda was one of the highest commanders... he gave the orders to attack and kill," Ms Bensouda told the three-judge bench.
The "bloody" northeastern Congolese region of Ituri was decimated by violence perpetrated by Ntaganda's forces, she said, adding he left "hundreds dead and thousands living in the forest with nothing and a population terrorised".
The 41-year-old, dressed in a black suit and white shirt with a grey-striped tie, sat and listened intently, his hands folded in front of him, as the charges were read out.
"Mr President, I plead not guilty to all the charges," he said in a soft voice, speaking in his native Kinyarwanda.
Ms Bensouda presented the prosecution's opening arguments on the first day, before the court was later adjourned. The victims' lawyers and the defence will address the hearing on Thursday.
Ntaganda is also due to make a statement - breaking his silence for the first time publicly since he unexpectedly turned himself in to the US embassy in Kigali two years ago.
Eastern DR Congo has been mired for two decades in ethnically-charged wars, as rebels battle for control of its rich mineral resources.
The conflict drew in armies from at least six African nations, claiming an estimated at least three million lives in one of the world's deadliest recent conflicts.
Despite protesting his innocence, prosecutors say the feared rebel commander played a central role in the Ituri conflict which rights groups believe alone left some 60,000 dead since 1999.
Ntaganda "recruited hundreds of children... and used them to kill and to die in the fighting," Bensouda told reporters earlier, adding that girl soldiers were "routinely raped." -
Ntaganda was one of the most-wanted fugitives in Africa's Great Lakes region until he unexpectedly surrendered in March 2013 and asked to be sent to The Hague.
He was the founder of the M23 rebel group 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 most likely feared 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" and known for his pencil moustaches, cowboy hats and love of fine dining, Ntaganda faces 13 counts of war crimes and five of crimes against humanity.
Rights groups say however abuses by Ntaganda's forces continued elsewhere in the DR Congo between 2006 and 2012.
The court had issued two arrest warrants against Ntaganda - the first in 2006 and the second with additional charges in 2012 for crimes committed in Ituri.
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 handed down by the court since it was set up 12 years ago.
Born in 1973, Ntaganda is among a dozen Africans 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.