FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Calling it a "tale of horror," a UN-sponsored war crimes court yesterday opened the first trials for rebel military commanders accused in a vicious 10-year campaign for control of diamond-rich Sierra Leone.
Onlookers in the tightly guarded courtroom muttered as the court detailed the allegations in an 18-count joint indictment: systematic killings, rapes, enslavement of child soldiers, and mutilation with machetes.
Prosecutors also described a network of foreign backing for the rebels, including training and forces from Charles Taylor, Liberia's former leader, and Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy.
The three former military commanders of the Revolutionary United Front are accused as the primary culprits in their movement's 1991-2002 battle to take control of Sierra Leone and its diamond fields.
Rebels adopted a trademark atrocity that made them notorious: chopping off the hands, legs, lips, ears, and breasts of their civilian victims with machetes. Maimed survivors struggle to make new livings, or inhabit vocational training camps set up for the mutilated.
The three accused are former rebel battlefield commanders Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon, and Augustine Gbao. Sesay was the rebel's last leader before the fighting stopped.
David Crane, the American chief prosecutor for the court, made frequent reference yesterday to another top indicted figure outside court custody, Taylor, who has been living in exile in Nigeria, where he fled on Aug. 11 as rebels laid siege to the Liberian capital of Monrovia.
Sierra Leone's war began with a Feb. 27, 1991, planning session in Gbarnga, Liberia, Taylor's base, Crane alleged. About 250 Revolutionary United Front fighters launched the invasion from Liberia, supported by Taylor's forces and Libyan special forces, Crane said.
Libya is accused of training and supporting Taylor and Sankoh as Cold War-era guerrillas against US interests in West Africa.
Khadafy was mentioned in the special court's indictments but was not accused of any crime.
All parties were fighting for influence and Sierra Leone's mineral wealth, Crane said.
Rebels directed most of their attacks on civilians, to terrorize the population, Crane said.