The Hague: Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda gave "orders to attack and kill" hundreds of victims in a campaign of terror that decimated the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the International Criminal Court heard Wednesday.
Nicknamed "The Terminator," Ntaganda denied 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity as his highly-anticipated trial opened in The Hague.
Ntaganda, who surrendered to the US embassy in Kigali in 2013, stands accused of orchestrating hundreds of deaths in savage ethnic attacks in the DR Congo in 2002-03, 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 a 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".
Bensouda opened her statement with a harrowing tale about a father discovering his family slaughtered by Ntaganda`s forces in a banana plantation in February 2003.
"He (the man) searched through the dead bodies for a long time before discovering his dead son, a toddler, disemboweled and his throat slit," Bensouda said.
Senior trial lawyer Nicole Samson showed the court graphic pictures of piles of bodies lying dead in that same banana field.
"Rape occurred on such a large scale that the (rebels) distributed antibiotics to troops against venereal diseases," Samson told the judges.
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.During the opening two-day session, Bensouda is to present the prosecution`s opening arguments, 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 DR Congo has been mired for two decades in ethnically-charged wars, as rebels battle for control of its rich mineral resources.
The wars brought in the armies of at least six African nations, leaving an estimated at least three million dead 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 on Tuesday ahead of the trial opening.
Girl soldiers were "routinely raped," the prosecutor added.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.
The court had issued two arrest warrants against Ntaganda -- the first in 2006 and the second with additional charges in 2012.
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.