First witness in Bemba trial describes pillaging

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Soldiers commanded by former Democratic Republic of Congo vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba looted houses and treated civilians cruelly, the first witness at his war crimes trial said on Tuesday.

Speaking from behind a screen to protect his identity, the unnamed witness described to the International Criminal Court the scene in the Central African Republic village as Bemba's beret-clad troops arrived during a 2002 conflict.

On the first day there was no trouble, but the next day villagers were woken by gunfire at five in the morning, the witness said.

"They entered each house, they took everything they could lay their hands on, radios, mobile phones," he said.

The witness, who voice was modified and face blurred on the court transmission, said he came "blow-to-blow" with one of Bemba's soldiers, saying "he was particularly cruel".

Bemba is charged at the world's top war crimes court with three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for the alleged atrocities of about 1,500 fighters of his private Congolese Liberation Movement between October 2002 and March 2003 in the CAR.

The witness said he knew that the troops belonged to Bemba because of their appearance and clothing, notably their dark berets and rubber boots.

Bemba pleaded not guilty to all charges when proceedings opened on Monday, while the court's chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he "knowingly permitted" his troops to commit hundreds of rapes, pillaging and killing.

The court has authorised 759 victims to participate in the trial, a figure that is likely to grow as it has a further 500 applications to examine, and it is expected to take several months.

© 2010 AFP

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