Wed, Jul 07, 2004 - Page 6 News List

UN court hears of Sierra Leone's atrocity `inferno'

AP , FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE

Revolutionary United Front defendants Augustine Gbao, left, and Issa Hassan Sesay appear briefly at the start of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown, Sierra Leone, last Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

Calling it a "tale of horror," the prosecutor for a UN-sponsored war-crimes court opened the first trials of rebel military commanders accused in a vicious 10-year campaign for control of diamond-rich Sierra Leone.

Onlookers in the tightly guarded courtroom on Monday muttered as the court detailed the alleged crimes in an 18-count joint indictment -- systematic killings, rapes, enslavement of child soldiers and mutilation by machete.

Prosecutors alleged a network of foreign backing for the rebels, including training and forces from then-Liberian president Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

"What took place in Sierra Leone marks the limits of our language to communicate, and falls outside the realm of expression," said David Crane, the American chief prosecutor for the UN-backed court, in opening statements.

"This is a tale of horror, beyond the gothic into the realm of Dante's Inferno," Crane said.

The three former military commanders of the Revolutionary United Front are accused as primary culprits in their movement's battle between 1991 and 2002 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. Countless maimed survivors struggle to make new livings today, or inhabit vocational training camps set up for the mutilated.

The three ex-rebels are former battlefield commanders Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao. Sesay was the rebels' last leader before the fighting stopped.

The rebels' founder and longtime leader -- Foday Sankoh, known as "Pa" to his drugged, drunk child fighters -- died of natural causes in UN custody last year.

Crane made frequent reference on Monday to another top indicted figure outside of the court's custody -- Taylor, a former Liberian president now living in exile in Nigeria.

Sierra Leone's war began with a Feb. 27, 1991, planning session in Gbarnga, Liberia, which was 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 widely accused of training and supporting Taylor and Sankoh as Cold War-era guerrillas against US interests in West Africa.

Qaddafi is mentioned in the special court's indictments but not indicted.

All parties were after influence and Sierra Leone's mineral wealth, the prosecutor said.

"Among their goals, the diamond fields of eastern Sierra Leone; and their motive -- power, riches and control in furtherance of a joint criminal enterprise that extended from West Africa north into the Mediterranean region and the Middle East," Crane said.

"Blood diamonds are the common thread that bound them together," the prosecutor said. "The rule of the gun was supreme."

Rebels directed most attacks on civilians, aiming to terrorize the population, Crane said.

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