By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A Congolese militia leader widely known as "the Terminator" ordered troops, including child soldiers, to massacre and rape civilians to spread terror and grab territory, prosecutors told the International Criminal Court on Monday.
The allegations against Bosco Ntaganda were made at the opening of hearings seen as a test for the global legal institution after a string of troubled cases. Ntaganda has yet to enter a plea.
"He played a key role in planning assaults against the civilian population in order to gain territory," said Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, setting out her arguments to judges who will decide if there is enough evidence for Ntaganda to stand trial.
Ntaganda was a senior military commander who should also be punished because he "failed to prevent or punish crimes by troops under his effective command or control," she said.
Ntaganda, an ethnic Hema, is accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes including murder and rape, all allegedly committed during a 2002-03 conflict in the mineral-rich east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The crimes were committed against the Lendu population and other ethnic groups in a bid to drive them out of the Ituri region over 12 months from September 2002, said the prosecutor.
Ntaganda, a tall, slight man with a pencil-line moustache, rose briefly at the start of the hearing, speaking in his native Kinyarwanda tongue to confirm his identity.
Ntaganda handed himself in to the U.S. embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali last March after a 15-year career as a commander in a series of rebellions in Congo's Ituri province.
Shortly after his arrival in The Hague, prosecutors asked judges for more time to rebuild a case which had been dormant for five years while Ntaganda was on the run.
The session will be a test of prosecutor Bensouda's promise last year that cases will be "trial ready" by the time they come to court - an implicit response to criticisms by academics and member states of earlier cases which collapsed when judges ruled evidence was not strong enough.
The court, 11 years old this year, has handed down just one conviction - jailing another Congolese warlord, Thomas Lubanga, for 14 years in 2012 for using child soldiers.
"The court is struggling, and the prosecutor, with her new strategy, has been trying to turn something around," said Bill Schabas, professor of international law at England's Middlesex University.
"The new strategy was a good sign, showing there was a sense of dissatisfaction with how things were going," he added.
Judges are due to decide over the next few weeks whether to suspend their most high profile current case - against Kenya's president on charges of orchestrating violence following 2007 elections - after prosecutors said several witnesses had withdrawn. Uhuru Kenyatta denies the charges.
Two other prominent figures facing charges - Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the ousted Libyan leader - remain beyond the court's reach because their countries refuse to surrender them.
Wars in Congo have killed about five million people in the past decade and a half, and many eastern areas are still afflicted by violence from a number of rebel groups despite a decade-old U.N. peacekeeping mission.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Andrew Heavens)