THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – Prosecutors at the world’s war crimes court launched an investigation Thursday into alleged atrocities in northern Uganda, where the government has been fighting an 18-year rebel insurgency.

It was the second investigation by the International Criminal Court; last month, prosecutors said they would investigate alleged crimes in Congo.

The Ugandan case will initially focus on the shadowy Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, which claims to be fighting to overthrow Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. But the case will not be limited to a single side in the conflict, officials said.

Uganda welcomed the investigation into the crimes committed by the LRA and promised to cooperate with the court.

“The government strongly believes that at long last the LRA terrorists who have committed terrible crimes against innocent and law abiding citizens of this country are going to face justice,” said Ugandan Defense Minister Amama Mbabazi.

Uganda will “immediately” prosecute government officials against whom the court may find incriminating evidence, he said.

Human rights groups say the LRA attacks civilians to steal food and abduct children for use as fighters, laborers or sex slaves. Aid agencies have estimated that the conflict has killed more than 23,000 people.

The LRA has kidnapped roughly 12,000 children over the past two years to use as soldiers, according to Human Rights Watch.

The New York-based group called for a balanced inquiry and for the court to ensure protections for witnesses and victims.

“It is imperative that the ICC conducts an impartial investigation in Uganda,” said the group’s Richard Dicker. “The ICC has the authority to investigate crimes committed by all sides in the conflict.”

The two-year-old court, based in The Hague, has jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in the 94 nations that have signed its founding treaty. It is a court of last resort that will step in only if states are considered unable or unwilling to prosecute perpetrators.

The United States has not signed the treaty.

Associated Press Writer Geoffrey Muleme contributed to this report from Kampala, Uganda.

AP-ES-07-29-04 1653EDT

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