The three defendants convicted on Wednesday in Freetown - Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara and Santigie Borbor Kanu - were indicted in 2003 as the alleged leaders of the the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, which toppled Sierra Leone's government in a 1997 coup and then teamed up with armed groups to control the country, according to the indictment.

The court found them guilty on 11 counts that covered terrorising the civilian population, unlawful killings, rape, the use of child soldiers, abductions and forced labour, and looting.

'Mutilated'

"Captured women and girls were raped ... AFRC/RUF also physically mutilated men, women and children, including carving 'AFRC' and 'RUF' on their bodies," the prosecution said in its indictment.

It also listed towns and villages around Sierra Leone where fighters hacked civilians to death, kidnapped others and took them to bases with names like "Superman Camp" or forced them to work as diamond miners.

"These convictions are a ground-breaking step toward ending impunity for commanders who exploit hundreds of thousands of children as soldiers in conflicts worldwide"

Human Rights Watch statement
The convictions for recruiting of child soldiers were the first by an international tribunal.
   
"These convictions are a ground-breaking step toward ending impunity for commanders who exploit hundreds of thousands of children as soldiers in conflicts worldwide," US-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

About 30,000 children are believed to have fought the civil war in a country with a population of just six million, according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

 

The men, all of whom pleaded not guilty, were due to be sentenced on July 16.

The court found them not guilty on two counts of sexual violence and one count of physical violence.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up jointly by the country's government and the United Nations in 2002 to try those deemed most responsible for human rights violations during the later stages of the civil war.
   
It initially issued 13 indictments against leaders from all three main warring factions but three suspects have since died and the whereabouts of another is unknown.

Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, is among those indicted but he is facing war crimes charges in a separate trial in The Hague.