A U.S. soldier accused of giving classified documents to WikiLeaks appeared in court on Friday for the first time, with the defence immediately calling for the presiding officer to step down.

Bradley Manning, a former intelligence analyst, is accused of downloading 260,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, videos of U.S. air strikes and U.S. military reports from Afghanistan and Iraq between November 2009 and May 2010.

But his defence lawyer urged the investigating officer, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Almanza, to recuse himself from the case involving one of the worst intelligence breaches in American history.

“The defence is filing a motion for you to recuse yourself,” civilian lawyer David Coombs said after the hearing, Mr. Manning's first appearance in court since his arrest in May 2010, got under way. The hearing, being held in a courthouse on Fort Meade, the headquarters of the top secret National Security Agency, immediately went into recess for the request to be considered.

The so-called Article 32 hearing is to decide whether Mr. Manning, who turns 24 on Saturday, should face a formal court-martial — a determination made by the investigating officer.

Mr. Manning appeared calm as he sat at the defence table, jotting down notes and chatting with his civilian and military attorneys.

Besides Mr. Coombs, Mr. Manning is represented by two military-appointed lawyers at the hearing, which is being attended by around four dozen members of the public and media from around the world. Mr. Manning, who was serving in Iraq at the time of the alleged offences, could face life in prison if convicted of aiding the enemy, the most serious of the 22 charges he is facing.

The hearing opened with the investigating officer reading the charges against Manning, asking whether he understood the charges, his rights and was satisfied with his defense counsel.

"Yes, sir," Manning replied crisply to each question.

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