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Taylor trial hears of mutilation

The first witness in Charles Taylor's war crimes trial testified yesterday that Sierra Leone rebels backed by Taylor mutilated and terrorized civilians to seize diamond fields, and that Taylor used the profits to buy weapons.

But lawyers for the former Liberian president challenged prosecutors to present evidence that linked Taylor to widespread murder, rape and amputations during Sierra Leone's bloody civil war.

Miners often slave laborers kidnapped by Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front or RUF dug up diamonds worth between $60m (£30m) and $125m (£63m) each year, said Ian Smillie, a Canadian expert on conflict diamonds.

Prosecutors allege the diamonds were smuggled through Liberia and Taylor used the proceeds to buy arms and ammunition for the rebels earning them the name "blood diamonds."

Taylor's trial resumed after a six month recess. It was adjourned last June after a chaotic opening day during which he boycotted proceedings and fired his lawyer.

Taylor, 59, is accused of orchestrating rape, murder and mutilation in Sierra Leone from his presidential palace in Liberia's capital Monrovia. He has pleaded innocent to all 11 charges.

Taylor is the first former African head of state to appear before an international tribunal.

Taylor looked confident as he sat in court wearing a gray suit and tie and gold rimmed glasses. At the end of the hearing, he smiled and chatted with his new defense team and blew a kiss to supporters in the public gallery.

Smillie was part of a UN team that investigated arms smuggling in Liberia in 2000, a probe that included interviewing Taylor. In that interview, Taylor conceded that Sierra Leone diamonds likely were being smuggled into and out of Liberia, but denied involvement.

However, Smillie said he stood by the findings of his team's report and read to judges a summary that was included in a 2001 Security Council Resolution imposing sanctions on Taylor's regime.

The resolution said that diamonds smuggled through Liberia were the key source of RUF income "and that such illicit trade cannot be conducted without the permission and involvement of Liberian government officials at the highest levels," Smillie told judges.

He also explained why the RUF developed the signature atrocity of the 10-year Sierra Leone civil war that ended in 2003.

"I think that part of the tactic in chopping hands and so on was to create such a fear of the RUF that the areas would be cleared for them to do whatever they wanted, including diamond mining and foraging for supplies," he said.

Fleeting video images of maimed victims cast a grim shadow over the first day of evidence.

One diamond miner shown in a video clip said RUF rebels forced him to lay out his arms and then hacked off both his hands so that he could never again vote in elections.

Another woman said she was sexually assaulted by a rebel and then saw her husband staggering out of the jungle with blood spurting out of his arms where his hands had been hacked off.

Taylor's defense team objected that videos had no relevance for Smillie's testimony, and the court said it will only rule later whether to admit them into evidence.

"I think they're desperate," Taylor's lead attorney Courtenay Griffiths said. "Let us now see what the firm concrete evidence is that he was directly involved ordering the atrocities in Sierra Leone."

Observers welcomed the resumption of the trial.

"This is a huge moment, as a former head of state is being tried for these most serious crimes," said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch. "For crimes like that to be committed with impunity would be a travesty."

Smillie showed the judges photos of a plane formerly used by the Seattle Supersonics the basketball team's logo still on the tail he said was used to smuggle 68 tons of Ukrainian weapons and ammunition.

The arms in cases strapped into and crammed under the plane's leather seats were smuggled into Liberia through Burkina Faso in March 1999, Smillie said.

Defense attorneys objected to Smillie being portrayed as an expert on Sierra Leone history and to the video images.

Judges agreed Smillie should not be allowed to testify about atrocities and it was not clear if they would admit the video as evidence.