THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- Children snatched from Congo streets were trained to kill and forced to fight in a brutal ethnic war, the International Criminal Court's prosecutor said Monday as the tribunal opened its historic first trial.
Children as young as 9, ripped from their families, were told "their gun was father and mother and would feed and clothe them," Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the three-judge panel in the trial of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga.
Lubanga's trial has been hailed as a legal landmark by human rights activists because it is the first international criminal prosecution to focus solely on child soldiers and the first to include the participation of witnesses.
It also marks the coming of age for the International Criminal Court, six years after it was set up.
Prosecutors plan to call 34 witnesses, including nine former child soldiers, and hope to wrap up their case in a few months.
Lubanga, wearing a dark suit and red tie, showed no emotion as his lawyer Catherine Mabille said he pleaded not guilty to using children under age 15 as soldiers in the armed wing of his Union of Congolese Patriots political party in 2002-03.
Lubanga's militia "recruited, trained and used hundreds of young children to kill, pillage and rape. The children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga's crimes," Moreno-Ocampo said.
He said he would seek a sentence close to the maximum, which could be either 30 years or life depending on the severity of his crimes.
Moreno-Ocampo showed judges video of Lubanga addressing recruits -- including young men and children dressed in military fatigues or T-shirts and shorts -- at a training camp.
Girls were particularly vulnerable, Moreno-Ocampo said.
"As soon as the girls' breasts started to grow, Thomas Lubanga's commanders could select them as their wives," he said. "Wives is the wrong word. They were sexual slaves."
Lubanga, a 48-year-old university graduate, claims he was a patriot fighting to prevent rebels and foreign fighters from plundering the vast mineral wealth of Congo's eastern Ituri region. His lawyer was to give her opening statement Tuesday.
The United Nations estimates that up to 250,000 child soldiers still fight in more than a dozen countries.
Param-Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch welcomed the trial but urged prosecutors to pursue more senior suspects.
Lubanga was arrested by Congolese authorities in 2005 and flown to The Hague a year later. He is one of four suspects in the court's custody -- all Congolese.
Other judges at the court are close to deciding whether to issue an arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide in Darfur province.
Lubanga's trial was originally slated to begin last June but was held up by a dispute between judges and prosecutors over confidential evidence that raised concerns Lubanga might be unable to get a fair trial. It took months of wrangling before judges and defense lawyers were granted access to the evidence.
Ninety-three victims are being represented by eight lawyers and can apply for reparations.
"What my clients expect from the court is, first of all, recognition of the harm they suffered," said lawyer Joseph Keta.
The trial is a key test of the court's ability to hold efficient trials where victim participation could stretch out proceedings.
Judges must take control of the courtroom "so this doesn't become an unruly trial that lasts indefinitely," said Singh.