The Hague: International Criminal Court judges on Monday convicted a Congolese rebel chief nicknamed "Terminator" of war crimes including massacring civilians and sexual enslavement, in a badly-needed victory for prosecutors in The Hague.
Bosco Ntaganda's forces carried out horrific attacks including one in a banana field that left babies and children disembowelled or with their heads smashed in, judges said.
The 45-year-old was a "key leader" who recruited child soldiers and gave "direct orders to target and kill" non-combatants in Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri region in 2002 and 2003.
Ntaganda was found guilty of 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, directing attacks against civilians, displacing civilians, rape, sexual slavery and enlisting children under the age of 15.
"Mr Ntaganda rallied the troops prior to battle, he gave direct orders to the troops during operations, and he debriefed them afterwards," head judge Robert Fremr said.
Rwandan-born Ntaganda will be sentenced at a later date after judges hear submissions from victims. Judges can give a life sentence.
Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth hailed the verdict as "big win for the survivors", while the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) said it was a "day of joy for Ituri victims."
Ntaganda -- known for his pencil moustache and a penchant for fine dining -- proclaimed his innocence throughout the trial, insisting that he was "soldier not a criminal" and that the "Terminator" nickname did not apply to him.
Prosecutors portrayed him as the ruthless leader of ethnic Tutsi revolts amid the civil wars that wracked the DRC after the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda.
Judges said Ntaganda "fulfilled a very important military function" as a leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots rebels and its military wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC).
The FPLC killed at least 800 people as it fought rival militias in Ituri for control of valuable minerals. More than 60,000 people have been killed since violence erupted there in 1999.
In one attack directed by Ntaganda, judges said that soldiers killed at least 49 captives in a banana field behind a village, using "sticks and batons as well as knives and machetes."
"Men, women and children and babies were found in the field. Some bodies were found naked, some had hands tied up, some had their heads crushed. Several bodies were disembowelled or otherwise mutilated," Fremr said.
In other attacks women were "killed either while resisting rape or after being raped" while people were forced to dig mass graves that they were later killed and thrown into.
Ntaganda was found guilty of personally shooting dead a Catholic priest and as an "indirect perpetrator" for the other crimes by giving "direct orders to target and kill civilians" and other crimes.
These included recruiting child soldiers who "wore uniforms that were often too large for them" but nevertheless were "punished and suffered physical violence" in the same way as adult soldiers," the judgment said.
The judges said it was "common for female members to be raped", including three girls under the age of 15.
Formerly a Congolese army general, Ntaganda then became a founding member of the M23 rebel group, which was eventually defeated by Congolese government forces in 2013.
Later that year he became the first-ever suspect to voluntarily surrender to the ICC, when he walked into the US embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali and asked to be sent to the court, based in the Netherlands.
Ntaganda is one of five Congolese warlords brought before the ICC, which was set up in 2002 as an independent international body to prosecute those accused of the world's worst crimes.
Ntaganda's former FPLC commander Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2012.
But it has suffered a string of setbacks over recent years with some of its most high-profile suspects walking free, including Ivorian former leader Laurent Gbagbo earlier this year.
It has also been criticised for mainly trying African suspects so far.
The US administration of President Donald Trump has also attacked the court after warning it against prosecuting US service members over war crimes in Afghanistan.