THE HAGUE - Congolese former vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba and four close associates went on trial at the International Criminal Court Tuesday on charges of bribing witnesses.

Prosecutors accuse ex-rebel leader Bemba, 52, of masterminding a network from his prison cell at the ICC's Hague-based detention unit, to bribe at least 14 defence witnesses to give false evidence in his trial on charges of war crimes. The prosecution's evidence will show "a plan directed by Mr Bemba to ensuring his acquittal through corrupt means," ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said at the opening of the trial, the first of its kind at the court which was set up in 2002 to try the world's worst crimes. Bemba faces three war crimes counts and two counts of crimes against humanity before the ICC, arising from widespread atrocities committed by his private army in the Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003. Also in the dock on Tuesday were Bemba's lawyer Aime Kilolo, his legal case manager Jean-Jacques Mangenda, with Congolese lawmaker Fidele Babala and Narcisse Arido, a defence witness.

Prosecutors charge that Kilolo told witnesses to give or withhold certain information during their testimony in exchange for money.

Mangenda is believed to have been aware, as Bemba's legal case manager, that Kilolo was allegedly bribing witnesses and is accused of relaying messages between Bemba and Kilolo.

Babala, deputy secretary of Bemba's Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) party, allegedly handled money transfers including payments to Kilolo, Mangenda and Arido.

Arido, who was an expert defence witness on military operations in the CAR, is accused of recruiting witnesses for the defence and instructing them what to say in Bemba's trial in exchange for money.

All five pleaded not guilty to more than 100 combined charges.

Prosecutor Kweku Vanderpuye on Tuesday told the court the suspects referred to "making a whisky" - the code word for a money transfer through Western Union.

The prosecutor also played a number of telephone intercepts including one in which Bemba says a witness "must not give too many elements, not too fast...(and) only after hesitation."

In another instance, a witness was told money paid "was not a bribe, but a gift from Jean-Pierre Bemba," Vanderpuye said.

Bemba, a former rebel leader-turned-politician unsuccessfully challenged DR Congo President Joseph Kabila in polls in 2006 went into exile after government forces routed his private militia in 2007.

He was arrested near Brussels in May 2008.

His troops, based in northern DR Congo, allegedly murdered, raped and pillaged after being sent into the CAR in late 2002 to help put down a coup against then Central African president Ange-Felix Patasse.

The former rebel leader-turned-politician has said he deployed his troops when Patasse asked for help in quelling a rebellion led by former armed forces chief Francois Bozize, who eventually seized power in 2003.

Closing arguments in the main trial were heard in November last year.

Bemba was served with an arrest warrant in connection with the latest charges at the ICC's detention unit.