File photo: Army private Bradley Manning steps out of a security vehicle as he is escorted into a courthouse in Fort Meade.

Fort Meade - A United States Army private facing court-martial for allegedly leaking secret documents to the WikiLeaks website took the witness stand on Thursday at a pre-trial hearing to make his first public statements since his arrest in Iraq in 2010.

Bradley Manning's testimony came on the third day of a hearing to determine whether his case should proceed to a full court-martial.

Manning has offered to plead guilty to less serious offenses than those with which he has been charged, according to his lawyer.

If Manning's case proceeds to trial and he is convicted of all the security breach charges against him, the private could face life imprisonment.

Charges include stealing records belonging to the United States and wrongfully causing them to be published on the Internet and aiding enemies of the United States, identified by prosecutors as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of the militant network founded by the late Osama bin Laden.

Prosecutors have alleged that Manning, without authorisation, disclosed hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables, military reports and video of a military helicopter attack in Iraq in which two Reuters journalists were killed.

WikiLeaks has never confirmed that Manning was the source of any documents it released.

In pre-trial litigation, prosecutors have presented testimony that legal experts say could be used to build a case that Manning had been in email contact with Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' Australian-born founder.

Nearly six months ago, Assange, who faces extradition to Sweden from Britain for questioning in a sexual molestation case, took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Assange and his supporters have said the Swedish case against him could be part of a secret plot to have him shipped for trial to the United States and either executed or imprisoned at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

US officials have denied those assertions. But they have acknowledged that a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, has been collecting evidence about WikiLeaks and some of its activists. Officials have not ruled out US criminal charges against Assange.

Earlier on Thursday, Assange played down reports that his health was declining after Ecuadorean officials said he was suffering from a chronic lung ailment. - Reuters