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Warlord guilty over child soldiers

An international war crimes tribunal has convicted Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga of turning children into murderous soldiers.

It is the International Criminal Court's first judgment, 10 years after being established.

Lubanga, wearing an ivory-coloured robe and skull cap, sat with his hands clasped in front of him listening to the verdict and showed no emotion as Presiding Judge Adrian Fulford declared him guilty.

Actress and activist Angelina Jolie watched the hearing from the public gallery and said the verdict was a victory for the former child soldiers. "This is their day - where these children will feel there is no impunity for what happened to them, for what they suffered," she said.

As he left court in The Hague flanked by guards, Lubanga nodded and smiled to supporters in the public gallery. A sentencing hearing will now be scheduled. Lubanga faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Judges said Lubanga, "personally used children below the age of 15 as his bodyguards." While the three-judge panel unanimously convicted Lubanga, it also harshly criticised prosecutors for using intermediaries to deal with witnesses in Congo. Judge Fulford said three intermediaries "persuaded, encouraged or assisted witnesses to give false evidence."

However, other witnesses and video of Lubanga speaking to recruits, some of them children, at a training camp provided enough evidence to convict him. Prosecutors said Lubanga led the Union of Congolese Patriots political group and commanded its armed wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, which recruited children - sometimes by force, other times voluntarily - into its ranks to fight in a brutal ethnic conflict in the Ituri region of eastern Congo.

The trial, which began in January 2009, is the first at an international court to focus exclusively on the use of child soldiers and activists say it should send a clear message to armies and rebels around the world that conscripting children breaches international law.

The United Nations estimates tens of thousands of child soldiers are still fighting in conflicts from Africa to Asia and Latin America.

The first verdict is a coming of age for the court set up to prosecute war crimes suspects in countries unable or unwilling to try them. So far, prosecutors have opened seven investigations and have just five suspects in custody, including former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and former Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba.

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