The three legionnaires, members of the elite Second Foreign Parachute Regiment, were in Central Africa as part of military accords that France has with a number of its former African colonies. The case throws a strange light on military co-operation.
'Our mission was to track down poachers, nab them and kill off the wounded,' said Ludwig Berger, called as a witness on the first day of the hearing on Monday.
The three, Patrick Daniels, 34, charged with the actual murder, Dominique Cage, 33, and Paul Serves, 39, both accused of complicity, went before an Armed Forces Tribunal, a special military assize court convened only for serious offences committed by French soldiers abroad.
Sergeant-Major Berger said he was in a legion patrol in Awakaba which had fired on two poachers. One fell and a male nurse in the patrol injected him with a tranquilliser.
When the judge asked why the patrol had not immediately followed its orders to kill the wounded, the witness replied: 'because we did not have a spade or a pickaxe' to dig a grave. Another patrol had taken the wounded poacher off their hands and its commander, Lieutenant Cage, had tried 'for one or two hours' to contact Captain Paul Serves, the company commander, for instructions.
The order had been 'to bring no one back', Lt Cage, now a captain, told the court. 'Everyone knows what that means.' He said he told his men to dig a grave. 'I hoped for a counter-order. I didn't know what to do. Getting no contact, I fell back on my last orders as a soldier but with heavy heart.'
Corporal Daniels, decorated for bravery when his unit was in Sarajevo last year, 'shot four or five times at the man'.