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Kenya VP trial witness sobs recalling church massacre

File picture shows Kenya's Vice President William Ruto (R) at the ICC in The Hague on September 10, 2013
Kenya's Vice President William Ruto (R) sits in the courtroom before the start of his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on September 10, 2013.

The first witness in Kenya Vice President William Ruto's crimes against humanity trial broke down Tuesday as she testified how a singing, machete-wielding mob trapped thousands inside a church and set it ablaze.

The woman, whose identity is protected and referred to only as "Witness P0536", told the International Criminal Court that "around 3,000" youths surrounded the church where she had joined some 2,000 people in hiding.

"They were painted with white clay... some had machetes, axes and sticks," she said, adding "they were singing."

"We were all trying to find a way to escape. I was carrying my small child with me," the witness recalled on the opening day of the prosecution's case against Ruto.

"The church was set alight," said the woman, whose face was pixellated on television screens and her voice disguised as she testified in Swahili, before she broke down sobbing.

She described how the church roof was covered with fuel, allegedly "carried in a blue plastic jerrycan" by a local opposition leader.

The witness said bicycles were used to block a main entrance of the church to stop people from escaping while youths laid in wait at another exit.

"When somebody tried to leave the church, they would grab the person and push them back inside," she said.

"I went mad," she told the judges.

The prosecution alleges the massacre was part of a plan of ethnic violence orchestrated by Ruto to "satisfy his thirst for power" after disputed 2007 elections. More than 1,000 people died in the post-poll unrest.

Presiding judge Chile Eboe-Osuji cut short proceedings before lunch to give the witness a chance to compose herself.

-- 'It was the first time I saw a rape' --

Ruto, 46, and his co-defendant, Kenyan radio boss Joshua arap Sang, 38, stand accused of organising and stoking the worst violence in the east African country since independence in 1963. They are pleading not guilty.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ruto's former political foe turned ally, begins his own trial for crimes against humanity at the court on November 12. He has also proclaimed his innocence.

The violence, which laid bare simmering ethnic tensions, was mainly directed at members of Kenya's largest Kikuyu tribe, who were perceived as supporters of then president Mwai Kibaki's Party of National Unity (PNU).

Initial attacks quickly led to reprisals, with homes torched and more people hacked to death.

Prosecutors opened their case against Ruto looking at the church massacre at Kiambaa village, about 11 kilometres (seven miles) south of the western Rift Valley town of Eldoret, on New Year's Day 2008.

The prosecution alleges that between 17 to 35 people were burnt alive after supporters of Ruto's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) locked ethnic Kikuyus in the church and set it on fire.

"Those who attempted to flee were hacked to death," the prosecution said in court documents, without giving a number of victims.

After the Kiambaa attack, the witness told how she witnessed a woman being raped, before her brother was struck in the neck with an arrow. He survived the ordeal.

"It was the first time I saw a rape with my own eyes," the witness said.

Prosecutors sought to hear large parts of her testimony in closed session, out of earshot of the public gallery.

In the gallery itself, many of Ruto's supporters sneered at some of the witness's statements, which even the Swahili interpreters at times found difficult to follow.

Ruto and Sang each face three charges of murder, deportation and persecution.

The cases have been mired in accusations of witness intimidation, allegations dismissed by the defence even though several witnesses pulled out of giving testimony.

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