A former top Central African Republic football official and a militiaman nicknamed Rambo go on trial at the International Criminal court Tuesday charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Ex-sports minister Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona was allegedly a senior leader of mainly Christian anti-Balaka militias as the country slid into civil war in 2013, while Alfred Yekatom, an MP, is accused of commanding them on the ground.
The anti-Balaka, which means anti-machete, formed as vigilante self-defence groups after mainly Muslim rebels called the Seleka stormed the capital and removed then-president Francois Bozize, a Christian.
The trial in The Hague comes against a backdrop of continuing unrest in the CAR, with rebels waging an offensive against the government of current president Faustin Archange Touadera.
Ngaissona and Yekatom, 46, are the "highest ranking anti-Balaka leaders to face trial, and the first at the ICC", Human Rights Watch said.
"The opening of the Yekatom and Ngaissona trial is a milestone for justice for victims of brutal crimes", said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at HRW.
The two men face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, torture, mutilation, persecution and the conscription of child soldiers from 2013 to 2014.
Ngaissona also faces charges of rape and attempted rape.
The trial -- whose start was delayed by a week by "unexpected Covid-19-related circumstances" -- starts at 0830 GMT with opening statements by the prosecution, defence and lawyers for victims.
- 'Violence and terror' -
Ngaissona was arrested in France in December 2018 and then extradited to the Hague. At the time he was head of the CAR football association and board member of the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
He was a key supporter of Bozize, whose ousting after a decade in power sparked vicious intercommunal fighting. He rose to become the "national general coordinator" of the anti-Balaka movement, prosecutors said.
FIFA has banned him from football for six years after finding him guilty of charges including "discrimination and of failing to protect, respect or safeguard integrity and human dignity" related to the CAR conflict.
Yekatom was extradited to The Hague in late 2018.
Styling himself as Commander Rambo -- after the Vietnam War veteran played by actor Sylvester Stallone in a series of movies -- Yekatom led an anti-Balaka force of around 3,000 people including child soldiers, prosecutors say.
Prosecutors said at a preliminary hearing in September 2019 that the two men waged a "campaign of violence and terror" against Muslims.
"Muslims were seen as traitors, collaborators, foreigners... (the anti-Balaka) burned down their mosques, targeted their schools and houses, they murdered, they raped women and children," prosecutor Kweku Vanderpuye said.
Judges ruled in December 2019 that there was enough evidence for the case to go to a full trial.
Another Central African Republic war crimes suspect, Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, an alleged leader of the Seleka, was sent to the ICC by authorities in Bangui in January.
The CAR is one of the world's poorest countries despite its rich natural resources, with a history of unrest since independence from France, including the despotic rule of self-proclaimed emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the 1960s and 1970s.
Despite a 2019 peace deal, militia groups which emerged during the conflict were recently in control of around two-thirds of the country, and Touadera depends heavily on UN forces, as well as military personnel sent by Russia and Rwanda.
A counter-offensive has seen pro-government forces retake a series of towns from the rebels in recent days.
Touadera won a presidential election in December from which Bozize was banned but barely a third of the potential ballots were cast.