The move by the prosecutor to start planning an inquiry comes after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni lodged a formal complaint against the rebels in December last year.

The ICC said in a statement on Thursday that it has determined there is sufficient basis to start planning for the first investigation of the ICC into the activities of the group.

The probe will be the first formal investigation opened by the ICC, the Hague-based tribunal that in July 2002 became the first permanent world court for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

The LRA has been fighting Museveni's government since 1986, ostensibly in a bid to replace it with an administration that would enforce the biblical Ten Commandments.

Child abductions

Museveni has lodged a formal
complaint with the ICC 

But the rebel group is best known for its attacks against civilians and the abduction of 20,000 children, who are forced to fight in rebel ranks or to serve as concubines for LRA commanders.

The war has killed and maimed thousands of people and displaced more than 1.2 million others in northern Uganda. The conflict has been described by a UN official as the world's worst forgotten humanitarian crisis.

Most of the LRA is made up of these child abductees, who over the years have grown into hardened fighters and now prevent recent recruits from leaving the ranks.

The children undergo various initiation rites to dehumanise them and are sometimes forced to kill members of their own families under threat of being killed themselves.

The court said reports indicate that human rights abuses include "summary executions, torture and mutilation, recruitment of child soldiers, child sexual abuse, rape, forcible displacement, and looting and destruction of civilian property".

Mysterious leader 

The LRA is led by the mysterious former altar boy and catechist Joseph Kony, described by close associates as a good-looking, unassuming man, fond of his multitude of wives and children and endowed with magical powers.

THE LORD'S RESISTANCE ARMY  

- Seeks to overthrow the Uganda's government

- Wants to establish a government based on the Ten Commandments

- Operates in the north from bases in southern Sudan

- Accused of murder, torture, maimings, rape, abductions and enslavement

According to the court, Museveni has expressed his intention to amend an amnesty for LRA members to exlude its leadership, "ensuring that those bearing the greatest responsibility" can be brought to justice.

The ICC also urged states and international insitutions to cooperate with the Ugandan authorities to help locate and arrest the leadership of the LRA.

The prosecutor at the ICC, Luis Moreno Ocampo, must now inform the states who have signed up to the court of his intention to start an investigation, a spokesman for the tribunal said. They have one month to make observations.

Congo violence 

A formal decision to open the inquiry against the LRA will be taken in the coming months, after which the prosecutor will be able to send a team of investigators on the spot.

Museveni and the ICC prosecutor met on Thursday in London to work out future cooperation between the two sides, the court said.

While the case against the LRA would be the ICC's first formal probe, the court is closely monitoring the situation in Ituri in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where inter-ethnic violence has cost 50,000 lives since 1999.