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Ugandan chief of Lord's Army faces war crimes trial

No names have been formally released, but the warrants are understood to be for the LRA leader Joseph Kony and four associates. The Ugandan government formally asked The Hague-based court to investigate violations in northern Uganda last year; the first time a state had asked the ICC to take up a case.

The LRA has terrorised northern Uganda and neighbouring South Sudan for the past 20 years, kidnapping thousands of children and forcing them to fight. The group has also murdered and tortured thousands of civilians.

The ICC was set up in 2002 to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed anywhere in the world. It is intended to be a court of last resort, intervening when national authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute. The court has begun investigations into atrocities committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur, but Uganda will be the first major test of its effectiveness.

Uganda's Minister of Defence, Amama Mbabzi, told The Independent: "I welcome the ICC's involvement, and am proud that Uganda was the first country to file a case to them." For two decades Kony has used a blend of pseudo-religious imagery and psychological torture to build up his rebel group. More than 30,000 children have been abducted, who are then forced to kill their own siblings and parents. Girls are raped and given as "wives" to the senior commanders. The abductees are usually too ashamed to return home and remain with the LRA. The ICC is unlikely to find it easy to bring Kony to trial; the presence of kidnapped children within the LRA has hampered the Ugandan army's attempts to destroy the rebel group - army commanders are under orders to capture, not kill, any young fighters.

The Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odium, who has set up a private peace initiative to end the violence, said the warrants may backfire on northern Uganda. He told reporters: "The ICC move will just lead to an increase in rebel attacks because it will not be possible to arrest these people. They have been eluding the government for 19 years."

The United States has long opposed the establishment of the ICC, arguing that its soldiers might be the subject of politically motivated prosecutions, although Washington has indicated that it may co-operate with the court in prosecuting crimes in Darfur. A number of other countries, including China, India, Pakistan and Turkey, have also refused to sign the treaty that set up the ICC.

Human rights groups welcomed the move, but added that they hoped the court would also investigate the Ugandan army, which is also accused of raping and beating civilians.

The Ugandan government has tried to open peace talks with the LRA on several occasions but the group's senior command has so far refused to surrender. Even an amnesty that granted Kony immunity from prosecution failed to draw him out of the bush, although it did persuade many junior fighters to lay down their weapons.

Mr Mbabazi said: "Kony has had the protection of an amnesty for several years, and he has shown no sign of wanting peace. If anything, he has seen the amnesty as a protection while he continues to fight."