THE HAGUE: International Criminal Court judges on Monday (Jul 8) convicted Congolese rebel chief Bosco "Terminator" Ntaganda of war crimes including directing massacres of civilians and rape, in a badly-needed victory for prosecutors in The Hague.
Ntaganda, 45, was a "key leader" who gave orders to "target and kill civilians" in Democratic Republic of Congo's volatile, mineral-rich Ituri region in 2002 and 2003, head judge Robert Fremr said.
The atrocities included a massacre at a village where people included children and babies were disembowelled or had their heads smashed in, the judge said.
Ntaganda was also responsible for the rape and sexual slavery of underage girls, and of recruiting troops under the age of 15, as well as guilty of personally killing a Roman Catholic priest, the court said.
Ntaganda "fulfilled a very important military function, he was one of the key leaders" of the rebel group, judges said, adding that "Mr Ntaganda's skills were held in high regard."
"In relation to these direct orders to target and kill civilians, Mr Ntaganda endorsed criminal conduct by his by own orders."
Ntaganda will be sentenced at a later date after judges hear submissions from victims. Judges can give a life sentence.
The soft-spoken Ntaganda - known for his pencil moustache and a penchant for fine dining - told judges during his trial that he was "soldier not a criminal" and that the "Terminator" nickname did not apply to him.
Rwandan-born Ntaganda was found guilty of 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity for his role in the brutal conflict that wracked the northeastern region.
Prosecutors portrayed him as the ruthless leader of ethnic Tutsi revolts amid the wars that wracked the DRC after the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda.
More than 60,000 people have been killed since the violence erupted in the region in 1999 according to rights groups, as militias battle each other for control of scarce mineral resources.
Prosecutors said Ntaganda was central to the planning and operations for the Union of Congolese Patriots rebels and its military wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC).
The FPLC killed at least 800 people as it fought rival militias in Ituri, prosecutors said.
In one attack directed by Ntaganda, judges said that soldiers killed at least 49 captured people in a banana field behind a village using "sticks and batons as well as knives and machetes."
"Men, women and children and babies were found in the field. Some bodies were found naked, some had hands tied up, some had their heads crushed. Several bodies were disembowelled or otherwise mutilated," Fremr said.
Formerly a Congolese army general, Ntaganda then became a founding member of the M23 rebel group, which was eventually defeated by Congolese government forces in 2013.
The first-ever suspect to voluntarily surrender to the ICC, he walked into the US embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali in 2013 and asked to be sent to the court, based in the Netherlands.
Ntaganda is one of five Congolese warlords brought before the ICC, which was set up in 2002 as an independent international body to prosecute those accused of the world's worst crimes.
Ntaganda's former FPLC commander Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2012.
But it has suffered a string of setbacks over recent years with some of its most high-profile suspects walking free, including Ivorian former leader Laurent Gbagbo earlier this year.
It has also been criticised for mainly trying African suspects so far.
The US administration of President Donald Trump has also attacked the court after warning it against prosecuting US service members over war crimes in Afghanistan.
In a separate hearing on Monday, judges are to determine whether there is enough evidence for a Malian jihadist to face trial for demolishing Timbuktu's fabled shrines, as well as for rape, torture and sex slavery.
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud was captured and transferred to the court last year.