FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- A former rebel leader whose followers were known for mutilating civilians was indicted Monday along with six others by Sierra Leone's war crimes tribunal.
The indictments were the first handed down by the special court for human rights abuses during the 1991-2000 civil war in the West African country.
Foday Sankoh, the most notorious of the rebels, has been in prison since early 2000 and will be among the first to go to trial, said David Crane, the court's American chief prosecutor.
He said the charges include murder, rape, enslavement, looting and forcing children to fight with rebels.
Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front launched a vicious insurgency to control the government and diamond fields in 1991. The rebels' signature atrocity was cutting off the hands and legs of civilians in a tactic to spread fear among opponents.
"Today the people of Sierra Leone took back control of their lives and their future," Crane told reporters. "The dark days of the rule of the gun are over."
Also charged was Internal Affairs Minister Samuel Hinga Norman. He was arrested Monday by police who surrounded him in his office in the capital.
Hinga Norman, the former deputy defense minister, orchestrated attacks by a pro-government militia of traditional hunters called the Kamajors whose alleged human rights abuses during the country's 1991-2000 civil war included torturing and summarily executing opponents and recruiting child fighters.
Three others were also arrested Monday while two remained at large.
Crane did not reveal when the cases would be heard. Court officials have been reluctant to give many details in advance for fear of jeopardizing the safety of trial participants.
Sierra Leone's war crimes tribunal differs from those of Rwanda and Yugoslavia as it will be held in the country and have a mix of local and international prosecutors and judges.
The court was launched by an agreement between the United Nations and Sierra Leone to try serious violations of international and Sierra Leonean humanitarian law since Nov. 30, 1996.
In that year, Sankoh's rebels signed a peace accord with the government that was supposed to end five years of war. But the peace deal was followed by a military coup and several more years of fighting until the end of 2000.
The court is expected to operate for three years on a budget of just under $60 million, paid for by contributions from about 20 countries, including the United States and Britain.
Also indicted Monday was Johnny Paul Koroma, a former junta leader who is wanted by Sierra Leone's government in connection with a failed January coup attempt -- the first since peace returned to the country.
Koroma, who allied himself with Sankoh's rebels in overthrowing Sierra Leone's civilian government in 1997, is currently at large.
In elections held last year, Sankoh's rebels stood for parliament without winning a single seat.
Since the elections, a shaky peace has emerged, protected by nearly 17,000 United Nations troops -- the world body's largest deployment anywhere.
Sankoh was captured in early 2000 after his fighters gunned down more than a dozen protesters outside his Freetown home.