Bodyguard testifies against Taylor at war crimes trial

A bodyguard of the former Liberian president Charles Taylor has given dramatic evidence against him, revealing the existence of a secret radio room that connected his mansion with the machete-wielding rebels on the front line in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Mr Taylor, the first former African head of state to face an international court, is on trial in The Hague for orchestrating a campaign of murder and mutilation during the decade-long war in Sierra Leone so he could plunder its diamond wealth.

His defence team does not contest that atrocities occurred but says that Mr Taylor, who stood down as Liberia's president in 2003 following intense international pressure, had nothing to do with it.

Varmuyan Sherif, part of Mr Taylor's inner circle, testified that his boss was in direct contact with Sam Bockarie – one of Sierra Leone's most notorious rebels, dubbed Mosquito for his ability to attack while people were off their guard – and had supplied him with arms, troops, cash and a satellite phone.

Observers in court yesterday described the flash of recognition that swept across Mr Taylor's face as his former security agent entered the courtroom, wearing a traditional brown tunic and avoiding eye contact with the man he used to protect.

"This was the first witness who's given us a direct link between the Sierra Leone rebels and Charles Taylor," said Elise Keppler, who is monitoring the trial for Human Rights Watch. "And the linkage issue is the crucial determining factor in establishing whether he is innocent or guilty."

Mr Sherif, who said he was responsible for the presidential motorcade and security on some of Mr Taylor's foreign forays, waived his right to appear as a protected witness, which would have prevented his name from being disclosed.

The former bodyguard told the court how he had been sent to Sierra Leone by Mr Taylor in late 1998 to persuade Mr Bockarie, one of the leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), to pay a visit to the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

The rebel leader became suspicious and took the bodyguard to a radio room near his house where he then proceeded to make contact with a secret communications centre on the fifth floor of Mr Taylor's presidential mansion and check out the story.

Mr Sherif also recalled Mr Bockarie's eventual visit to Monrovia. Shortly after the first face-to-face meeting with Liberia's leader, Mr Sherif saw the rebel chief carrying a wad of US dollars and a phone.

"He showed me the money and the satellite phone and he told me he was now a happy man," the witness told the court.

On another occasion the rebel leader arrived with diamonds, smuggled inside a mayonnaise jar, he said.

The court had previously heard from an expert in blood diamonds Ian Smillie, who said diamonds were the primary source of RUF funding, and that the diamond fields in Sierra Leone earned the rebel group up to $125m a year.

Harrowing accounts of rebel atrocities committed in the eastern diamond district of Kono have also been told to the court. Pastor Alex Tamba Teh described how child soldiers chopped off the hand, arm and feet of one screaming boy before tossing him into a toilet pit. They also carved RUF's initials on to the bodies of villagers they abducted to swell their ranks. Yesterday's witness is one of 60 so-called "insiders" the prosecution is expected to call as it seeks to prove Mr Taylor's complicity in Sierra Leone's civil war that raged from 1991 until 2002.

The trial resumed this week after a six-month recess. A judgment is not expected until the end of next year.

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