Witness at war crimes trial weeps over girl's rape

The first witness testifying at the war crimes trial of Congo's former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba broke down in tears Tuesday as he described a young girl being raped in front of her mother by rebel fighters.

The witness, whose identity is being shielded while he testifies at the International Criminal Court, said the girl's mother carried her bleeding daughter to him to report the rape.

He said that Bemba's troops raped the girl shortly after they arrived in his village in Central African Republic in 2002.

Prosecutors say Bemba bears responsibility for atrocities committed by members of his private militia in Central African Republic in 2002-2003 as they helped forces loyal to then-president Ange-Feliz Patasse fight rebels led by Congo's former army chief of staff Francois Bozize. Bozize's forces ultimately won and he replaced Patasse as president.

Bemba pleaded not guilty Monday as his trial opened to charges of murder, rape and pillage. His lawyers say he had no control over his fighters once they passed into Central African Republic.

Rights groups say Bemba's trial is significant because it is the first at the International Criminal Court to focus on widespread sexual crimes used as a weapon of war. It also is the first trial at the court to deal with the responsibility of a commander for the actions of his troops.

Bemba, 48, is the most senior political figure to appear before the court. He had been considered a potential presidential candidate in Congo's next election.

The witness, whose testimony was to continue Wednesday, said Bemba's troops arrived in his country from neighboring Congo wearing new uniforms and carrying new weapons.

They set up camp near a strategic crossroads in his village near the capital, Bangui, and almost immediately started raping and pillaging. Those who resisted were beaten or shot.

One elderly man was shot in the forehead "at point blank range" as rebels tried to steal his duck, the witness told the three-judge panel.

The witness said the young girl, aged eight or nine years, was raped in front of her mother in their own home.

The rebels, "didn't rape the mother because the young girl was still fresh," he said.