THE HAGUE — Troops in Jean-Pierre Bemba's private army were under Central African Republic command during the conflict in which they are accused of carrying out systematic atrocities, a defence witness said Tuesday.
Lawyers for the former DR Congo vice president opened their case before the International Criminal Court with their first witness, a retired French general, telling the court the CAR commanded Bemba's Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) in 2002-2003.
"Operational command fell under the Central African Republic for the duration of the conflict," said Jacques Seara, who wrote a document for Bemba's trial on command structures during hostilities and took the stand as a military expert.
Bemba, 49, is on trial at the Hague-based court for three counts of war crimes and two of crimes against humanity for widespread atrocities committed in the CAR by the Congolese-based MLC between October 2002 and March 2003.
His troops allegedly murdered, raped and pillaged after Bemba sent them into the country in late 2002 to help put down a coup against then-CAR president Ange-Felix Patasse.
Seara told the court on Tuesday, without specifically referring to Bemba's role in the CAR: "You cannot imagine that in this kind of conflict a group (like the MLC) was working on its own.
"They did not fight a war for themselves, but a war in which the CAR wanted to re-establish a state of law," said Seara, who was to continue his testimony on Tuesday afternoon.
Lawyers for Bemba, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, also argue that his forces were under CAR command when the atrocities were committed.
Bemba's lawyer Aime Kilolo told AFP his client was "combative and more determined than ever to prove the truth -- which is that direct control of the MLC belonged to CAR authorities" and not Bemba, as alleged by the prosecutor's office, which said he had "effective authority and control."
Earlier in the day, ICC judge Sylvia Steiner opened proceedings by telling the court: "We are starting a new phase" after prosecutors closed their case on March 21.
The former rebel leader-turned-politician said he deployed his troops when Patasse asked for help in quelling a rebellion led by the former armed forces chief Francois Bozize, who eventually seized power in 2003.
Bemba, who unsuccessfully challenged current DR Congo President Joseph Kabila in polls in 2006, went into exile after government forces routed his private militia in 2007. He was arrested in Brussels in 2008.
Judges have given the defence 230 hours to question the 63 witnesses they intend to call, and 2,287 victims have been authorised to take part in the proceedings.
The ICC is the world's only independent permanent tribunal to try cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was established in 2002 and opened its doors a year later.
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