Ugandan LRA rebel leader to go on trial at war crimes court

The Hague (AFP) - The International Criminal Court ruled Wednesday there is enough evidence to try notorious Lord's Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen for crimes committed in Uganda, including keeping sex slaves and recruiting child soldiers.

The Hague-based tribunal's judges "confirmed 70 charges brought by the prosecutor against Dominic Ongwen," saying "there are substantial grounds to believe that Dominic Ongwen is responsible" for crimes including murder, rape, sexual slavery, torture and conscripting children under the age of 15.

Ongwen, who surrendered early last year and was handed over to the ICC, is the only senior LRA commander currently in the court's custody.

Known as the "White Ant" in his native Acholi language, Ongwen is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role from 2002 to 2005 in the rebel group's reign of terror in northern Uganda, led by its elusive chief and fellow ICC suspect Joseph Kony.

A former child-soldier-turned-warlord, Ongwen was Kony's one-time deputy and one of the most senior commanders of the LRA, which is accused of slaughtering more than 100,000 people and abducting 60,000 children in a bloody rebellion against Kampala that began in 1986.

Prosecutors in January at a hearing to confirm charges against Ongwen told the ICC's judges he was the "tip of the spear" of the group that has sown terror across several countries in central and eastern Africa.

Ongwen, who is about 40 years old, allegedly ordered the killings of civilians as well as the abduction and enslavement of children to be rebel soldiers as the LRA attacked helpless villages across the northern Ugandan countryside, prosecutors said.

Witnesses to the carnage said Ongwen ordered his hostages, at least on one occasion, to "kill, cook and eat civilians," prosecutors said.

The hearing was also shown graphic images of bodies of LRA victims, burnt-out huts and the abandoned corpses of children during the January 21 hearing.

- 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.

Ongwen's own troops were notorious for their punishment raids, during which they would slice off victims' lips and ears as a grim calling card.

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

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.

Kony remains on the run despite an intense manhunt backed by US special forces.

So far this year alone the LRA has captured more than 200 people in the CAR, a quarter of them children, human rights groups said earlier this month.