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Former Congolese Rebel: 'I Never Attacked Civilians'

Former Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda in The Hague, Netherlands, Sept. 2, 2015.

Former Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda denied being a killer and a war criminal Thursday as he spoke at his trial in The Hague.

In a speech to judges of the International Criminal Court, Ntaganda acknowledged being described as "The Terminator" but said, "That is not me."

Ntaganda insisted he is a soldier, not a criminal, and said, "I have never attacked civilians...I have always protected them."

The comments pose a sharp contrast to the image painted by ICC prosecutors, who say Ntaganda commanded a rebel group, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), that killed, raped and exploited people in Congo's eastern Ituri province in 2002 and 2003.

A lawyer for victims told the court Thursday that girls as young as 12 were forced to serve as so-called wives to senior rebel commanders.

Ntaganda is facing 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including charges of murder, sexual slavery, enlistment of child soldiers and forcible transfer of population.

He entered a plea of not guilty as his trial got under way on Wednesday.

UPC attacks allegedly targeted specific ethnic groups such as the Lendu, Bira, and Nande. One alleged co-conspirator was Thomas Lubanga, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2012 after the ICC convicted him of conscripting child soldiers.

Ntaganda remained at large for seven years after his indictment was issued in 2006, irritating judicial officials with occasional appearances in public.

He co-founded the Congolese rebel group M23 in early 2012. In a surprise move, however, he surrendered at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, in March of 2013. Experts say he may have turned himself in because fighting within M23 caused him to fear for his life.

Prosecutors have called dozens of witnesses to testify against him, including a number of former child soldiers.

The trial is expected to last several months. Presentation of evidence is expected to begin September 15.