A top Central African Republic football official and a militiaman nicknamed Rambo led a "campaign of violence and terror" against Muslims, the International Criminal Court heard on Thursday.
Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona was a senior leader of mainly Christian militias as the country descended into war in 2013 to 2014, while Alfred Yekatom commanded thousands of the so-called anti-Balaka fighters on the ground, prosecutors said.
Former sports minister Ngaissona, 52, and Yekatom, 44, both appeared in court in The Hague for a hearing to confirm charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Judges will then decide whether there is enough evidence to move to a full trial.
Ngaissona -- the head of the CAR football association and board member of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) -- was arrested in France in December and then extradited to the Hague on an ICC warrant.
Prosecutor Kweku Vanderpuye told the court that the defendants "are here today because of their criminal implication in a campaign of violence and terror against civilians including children."
"Muslim residents of the Central African Republic were relentlessly terrorised... by a violent group intent on their elimination," he said.
"Muslims were seen as traitors, collaborators, foreigners... (the anti-Balaka) burned down their mosques, targeted their schools and houses, they murdered, they raped women and children."
'Killing, looting and pillaging'
Both wearing dark suits, the pair stood in court as officials read out dozens of charges including murder, torture, mutilation, enlistment of child soldiers and targeting civilians relating to the period from December 2013 to August 2014.
They deny all the charges.
The court heard that Ngaissona was a key supporter of then-president Francois Bozize, who was ousted by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels in 2013, sparking vicious intercommunal fighting.
The wealthy former minister "exploited the hatred" felt by the Christian anti-Balaka militias due to atrocities committed by the Seleka to "create a formidable fighting force to return to power," the prosecution lawyer said.
"Mr Ngaissona knew that the fighting force he had contributed to forming would... violently target the Muslim population and commit the war crimes and crimes against humanity with which he is charged," Vanderpuye said.
Ngaissona both encouraged the creation of the militias, coordinated them and provided them with access to weapons and ammunition, the court heard.
Targeting the capital Bangui, the anti-Balaka unleashed "armed convoys killing, looting and pillaging as they went", as well as driving huge numbers of Muslims out of their homes.
One of the key fighters was Yekatom, who was "styling himself as Commander Rambo", and led a force of thousands of people including child soldiers, the prosecutor said.
Yekatom had an "important" role in the plan to drive out Muslims, commanding thousands of men who were "organised in a military hierarchy", the court heard.
"He was respected, he was feared and his orders would be obeyed," Vanderpuye said.
Both defendants also knew that child soldiers under the age of 15 were being used, the prosecution said.
It quoted one child soldier as saying that when their chiefs caught "an Arab (Muslim) alive, they would order us to stab him, we were instructed to stab or cut his ear off, and when the prisoner was exhausted, dig a shallow grave about knee height, then the chiefs would come back and kill them.".
Yekatom was extradited to The Hague in late 2018.
Presiding judge Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua said the purpose of the hearing, which will last a week, was "not to pronounce guilt or innocence".
Instead it will "establish if there is sufficient evidence to allow us to believe that Mr Yekatom and Mr Ngaissona have committed the crimes that they are accused with."
Lawyers for the defendants and for victims will speak later.
The UN has 13,000 peacekeepers deployed in the Central African Republic, where thousands of people have been killed and about a fifth of the 4.5 million population has been displaced in the last six years.
In February, the government reached a peace agreement with 14 armed groups that led to the formation of a new government that includes representatives of the groups.