THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- The International Criminal Court has issued its first arrest warrants, calling on three African nations to help capture five Ugandan rebels it said were responsible for killing thousands of civilians and enslaving thousands of children.
Judges issued the warrants on July 8 and sent them to the government in Kampala, but they were kept secret until Friday to protect witnesses and victims.
The warrants capped a nine-month investigation of more than 2,200 killings and 3,200 abductions in 850 separate attacks by the Lord's Resistance Army between July 2002 and June 2004, chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said.
Their issuance was a milestone for the court, created in 2002 over the strenuous opposition of the United States, which feared the court would be politicized and used as a tool against Americans.
The warrants named Joseph Kony, who claims mystical powers and has led the uprising in Uganda for 19 years, and four of his commanders. Kony faces 33 counts, including 12 counts of crimes against humanity for rape and sexual enslavement.
His four deputies have been charged with between four and 32 counts.
One of the four men was believed to have been killed in a clash with Ugandan troops 12 days ago.
Moreno-Ocampo said the other suspects were believed to be moving among Uganda, Sudan and Congo, and it was up to those governments to make the arrests "with the help of the international community."
Kony used force and the murder of family members to maintain discipline among the thousands of children abducted by the group and trained as killers. Women were kidnapped and given to commanders as sex slaves, the prosecutor said.
"We are ready to prove our case," Moreno-Ocampo told reporters.
Citing what he called a classic case, Moreno-Ocampo said the LRA seized one 9-year-old boy and shot his 12-year-old brother who was pleading to take him instead. From fear, the boy became a model recruit, the prosecutor said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged states in the region to cooperate with the court, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement issued late Friday in New York.
"This is a historic step which opens doors to justice for people of Northern Uganda who have suffered horribly for nearly 20 years under the hands of the LRA," said Richard Dicker, head of the International Justice Program at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Moreno-Ocampo said investigations were continuing into all sides of the conflict, but said the crimes of the LRA were so grave that "no comparison is possible."
He said the Sudanese government is cooperating with his pursuit of Kony, even though some Sudanese officials are under a separate investigation for alleged war crimes in the Darfur region of western Sudan. The two cases were being kept separate, the prosecutor said.
The Lord's Resistance Army is believed to have abducted more than 30,000 children and forced more than a million to flee their homes.