THE HAGUE • Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda gave "orders to attack and kill" hundreds of victims in a decade-long campaign of terror in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the International Criminal Court (ICC) has heard.
Nicknamed "The Terminator", Ntaganda denied 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity as his highly-anticipated trial opened in The Hague yesterday.
Ntaganda, who surrendered to the US Embassy in Kigali in 2013, stands accused of orchestrating hundreds of deaths in savage ethnic attacks in the DRC, as well as recruiting and raping child soldiers in his own rebel army.
"Bosco Ntaganda was one of the highest commanders... he gave the orders to attack and kill," ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the three-judge bench.
The "bloody" north-eastern Congolese region of Ituri was decimated by violence perpetrated by Ntaganda's forces, she said, and he left "hundreds dead and thousands living in the forest with nothing and a population terrorised".
Despite protesting his innocence, prosecutors say the feared rebel commander played a central role in the Ituri conflict which rights groups believe left some 60,000 dead since 1999.
"Bosco Ntaganda continued to terrorise the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for a decade more" after the events from 2002-2003 with which he is charged, Ms Bensouda added.
Ntaganda, sporting his signature pencil moustache and dressed in a black suit and white shirt with a grey-striped tie, sat listening intently with his hands folded in front of him as the charges were read out.
"Mr President, I plead not guilty to all the charges," the 41-year-old said in a soft voice, speaking in his native Kinyarwanda.
During an initial two-day session, Ms Bensouda is to present the prosecution's opening arguments first, after which the victims' lawyers and the defence will address the court. Ntaganda is also due to make a statement - breaking his silence for the first time publicly since he unexpectedly turned himself in two years ago.
Eastern DRC has been mired for two decades in ethnically-charged wars, as rebels battle for control of its rich mineral resources.
Despite protesting his innocence, prosecutors say the feared rebel commander played a central role in the Ituri conflict which rights groups believe have left some 60,000 dead since 1999.
Ntaganda "recruited hundreds of children... and used them to kill and to die in the fighting", Ms Bensouda told reporters on Tuesday, ahead of the trial opening. Girl soldiers were "routinely raped", she added.
Prosecutors have collected 8,000 pages of evidence from more than 2,000 victims, and plan to call some 80 witnesses - 13 of them experts and the rest victims.
Three former child soldiers in Ntaganda's rebel Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo will also take the stand, their lawyers said.
Ntaganda was one of the most- wanted fugitives in Africa's Great Lakes region until his surrender.
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 North Kivu region of the DRC.
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.