THE HAGUE The militia of former Congo vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba raped young girls at a school in the Central African Republic, and also robbed and beat civilians, a witness told the International Criminal Court on Tuesday.
Bemba, 48, went on trial at the ICC on Monday charged with letting his troops rape and kill civilians in the Central African Republic in a five-month intervention in the country to help put down coup attempts against its then president.
He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes.
The first prosecution witness, a witness whose face and voice were disguised, said he started resisting Bemba's rebels after being confronted by rapes, shootings and pillaging.
"I remember one day ... when a woman brought me her daughter of eight or nine years old who had been raped. It was very difficult ... I saw that this girl was bleeding, but what could I do when faced with such a situation?" the witness said.
"The school became a place where orgies were held," the witness added, citing other witness comments. "It was horrible to explain to another person, but to experience such things..."
He said people were stopped on the street and robbed of everything, including their clothing, and repeatedly beaten if they did not have anything of value to steal.
At one point, the witness lost composure, prompting presiding judge Sylvia Steiner to ask whether he was feeling comfortable enough to continue. "I believe so," he replied.
Bemba is accused of sending his forces into CAR at the request of Ange-Felix Patasse, the republic's president at the time, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to put down coup attempts led by the country's current president Francois Bozize.
The witness said Bemba's troops moved into PK12, a trading center on roads from Chad and Cameroon slightly north of the CAR capital Bangui, early one evening in October 2002 after Bozize's rebels had retreated from the area.
"They arrived in the evening and around 5 o'clock the next day the population woke up to hearing gunshots and houses were being broken into," the witness said, adding later that Bemba's rebels "were the only ones doing these acts of violence."
He estimated 800 to 1,000 troops were in the area, having moved in by foot the first night and later by vehicles as they carried AK47 machine guns and rocket launchers.
"I was along the road that night, I saw them," said the witness, who added he lived in the village of Begoua near PK12.
The witness said the troops set up three to four bases in the area, one of which was on a major road to Bangui, where they "destroyed everything and everyone fled."
Asked how he knew the troops were Bemba's MLC, the witness said the berets and uniform insignia they wore were different from those of Bozize's forces and they had different physical features, adding that they wore distinctly different knee-length rubber boots.
(Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block; editing by David Stamp)