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THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A blood diamond expert and an account from a Sierra Leonean miner who said laughing rebels hacked off his hands and burned his family opened the war crimes trial against Liberia's Charles Taylor on Monday.
The former Liberian president, once one of Africa's most feared warlords, faces charges of rape, murder, mutilation and recruitment of child soldiers at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, set up to try those behind the 1991-2002 war.
Taylor is accused of trying to gain control of the mineral wealth of neighboring Sierra Leone, particularly its diamond mines, and of seeking to destabilize its government by supplying the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels.
Prosecutors showed scenes from a documentary including a severed hand and the story of the diamond miner, who said RUF rebels cut of his hands and torched his house, killing his wife and children inside.
Their first witness, Ian Smillie, a Canadian expert on the trade in "blood diamonds" smuggled out of Africa to buy arms, said the RUF used brutality to frighten people away from diamond fields that earned them up to $125 million a year.
Smillie said diamonds were the primary source of RUF funding and most left Sierra Leone through Liberia. He added they could not have done so without the knowledge of Liberian officials, and the Liberian government supported the RUF at all levels.
He said the special light of diamonds from Sierra Leone meant they were worth around $200 per carat, compared to about $25-30 per carat for those from Liberia.
Smillie met Taylor in 2000 while investigating diamond smuggling as part of a U.N. probe. Taylor told him it was "highly probable" RUF diamonds were passing through the country but he had no specific knowledge of it, Smillie said.
Taylor, 59, the first former African head of state to face an international court, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. He looked relaxed in court, wearing gold-rimmed spectacles, a dark suit and a gold watch and ring.
More than quarter of a million people were killed in intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Prosecutors want the trial to set a precedent worldwide and end decades of impunity for African strongmen.
A generation of civilian amputees -- their hands or legs chopped off by rebels -- are a painful reminder of the cruelty of the conflict, in which drugged rebels and militia members, often just children, killed, raped and maimed.
Prosecutors intend to call 144 witnesses. After Smillie, they plan to question a victim of the violence in Sierra Leone and then an insider once close to Taylor's regime.
Taylor's defense lawyers do not contest that atrocities took place in Sierra Leone but dispute Taylor's involvement. They have questioned whether bringing victims to the Hague to testify would serve any purpose other than emotional impact.
"It will be an ever present tactic by the prosecution because they have such a shabby case," Taylor's lawyer Courtenay Griffiths said.
In the past, ousted African dictators have often fled overseas to live out their days unpunished. Taylor found exile in Nigeria after being overthrown in 2003, but was later handed to the court under international pressure.
"This is a huge moment as a former head of state is tried," said Elise Keppler of campaign group Human Rights Watch.
The trial is being held in The Hague because of fears it could spur instability if held in Sierra Leone.
Prosecutors expect a judgment by the end of 2009, though an appeal would be likely to stretch into 2010.
Taylor boycotted the opening of his trial last June in a bid to win more funds for his defense, delaying the process. The former strongman is receiving legal aid despite suspicions he has amassed a considerable personal fortune.