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War crimes court told of Ugandan rebels' reign of terror

2 min 32Approximate reading time

War crimes prosecutors Thursday lifted the veil on a campaign of terror by the notorious Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda, telling how children were beaten and bullied to become soldiers, with some burnt alive.

Former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen faces 70 charges including war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, where prosecutors described years of brutality, rape and cruelty, even acts of cannibalism.

"For well over a decade until his arrest in January 2015, Dominic Ongwen was one of the most senior commanders in the LRA," Prosecutor Benjamin Gumpert told The Hague-based court.

A former child soldier turned rebel commander, Ongwen "was the tip of the spear" of the movement, Gumpert said.

He is the first commander of the LRA to appear before the ICC, which has also issued an arrest warrant for the group's fugitive chief Joseph Kony, who has evaded an international manhunt for years.

Gruesome images of the bodies of LRA victims, burned out huts and the abandoned corpses of children were shown to the three-judge panel on the opening day of the hearing.

Witnesses said Ongwen, who is about 40, ordered his hostages "at least on one occasion to kill, cook and eat civilians," Gumpert said.

- Burnt alive -

Prosecutors are seeking to convince ICC judges that the evidence is solid enough to put him in the dock. The judges will rule on whether the case can proceed at a later date.

They allege that from 2002 to 2005, Ongwen "bears significant responsibility" for "terrifying attacks" in northern Uganda.

Dressed in a grey suit, lilac shirt and grey tie, Ongwen, who turned himself in to US special forces in January 2015, listened intently to the prosecutor.

But in a brief address to the court, he insisted reading out the charges was "a waste of time".

Ongwen, whose surname means "White Ant" in his native Acholi language, was one of Kony's one-time deputies.

The LRA is accused of slaughtering more than 100,000 people and abducting 60,000 children in its bloody rebellion against Kampala that began in 1986.

The prosecution, which was to resume the hearing on Tuesday, is focusing on four attacks on camps in northern Uganda housing people forced to flee from the LRA.

More than 130 people -- many of them children and babies -- died in these attacks and hundreds of others were abducted, prosecutors said.

In one attack on the Pajule camp in October 2003, forces under Ongwen's command carried out an early morning raid.

"There was a boy who tried to run away. He was shot in the stomach and his intestines spilled out," said prosecutor Kamran Choudhry, quoting a witness.

The two children of another witness were locked in a hut and "he was forced to watch as LRA fighters called for fire and set the hut ablaze," Choudhry said.

After the attack at least 200 civilians were captured in "one of the largest instances of mass abductions in the history of the LRA."

- Ten Commandments -

The LRA first emerged in northern Uganda in 1986, where it claimed to fight in the name of the Acholi ethnic group against the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

But over the years it has moved freely across porous regional borders, shifting from Uganda to sow terror in southern Sudan before heading into northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and finally crossing into southeastern Central African Republic in March 2008.

Combining religious mysticism with a bent for astute guerrilla tactics and bloodthirsty ruthlessness, Kony has turned scores of young girls into his personal sex slaves while claiming to be fighting to impose the Bible's Ten Commandments.

Born in 1975, Ongwen was transferred to The Hague a year ago shortly after he unexpectedly surrendered to US special forces operating in the Central African Republic.

Experts believe Ongwen fled after falling out with Kony and almost being killed.

Rights groups point out Ongwen was himself initially a victim -- abducted at 14 by the LRA as he was walking to school -- which may prove a mitigating factor in sentencing if he is found guilty at trial.

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