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Liberia's Taylor rejects war crimes charges

/ Source: The Associated Press

The CIA and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi both had a hand in Charles Taylor's rise to power as Cold War politics and pan-African struggles helped propel him to the presidency in Liberia, according to his testimony Wednesday at his war crimes trial.

Taylor sketched a turbulent African continent in the 1980s that was the backdrop for American anti-communist efforts and African freedom fighters backed by Gadhafi fighting to shake off "the yoke of colonialism."

Taylor is charged with 11 counts of crimes against humanity and using child soldiers in his role backing rebels in Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war. He has denounced the accusations against him as "disinformation, misinformation, lies, rumors."

He took the stand for the first time Tuesday after listening in silence to 91 prosecution witnesses, many of them describing murders, mutilations, tortures and acts of cannibalism by Sierra Leonean rebels. Others who claimed to be former Taylor aides gave accounts of his communications with the rebels and supplying them with weapons, and the transfer of illicit diamonds in return.

'He's over the moon, he's buzzing'
In 10 hours of testimony over two days, Taylor portrayed himself as a liberator of the Liberian people whose intention was to sweep away the corrupt military regime in Monrovia and establish democracy.

His lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, said the former president is enjoying his time on the stand at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

"He's over the moon, he's buzzing," Griffiths told reporters during a break.

Taylor's testimony is expected to take several weeks before prosecutors begin their cross-examination.

In his second day of questioning by Griffiths, Taylor described a tumultuous period of coups and executions in Liberia, a West African nation buffeted by Cold War politics after a sergeant major in the Liberian army, Samuel Doe, seized power in a bloody coup in 1980.

Waving his hands or pointing his finger, Taylor gave an animated account of his falling out with Doe, his flight to the United States for safety and his escape via a sheet knotted to a window's bars from a Massachusetts prison where he was being held on an extradition request after the regime accused him of embezzling $900,000.

'He was cut to pieces'
Taylor said U.S. authorities helped organize his escape days before a failed 1985 coup by a former close friend, Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa, who was later butchered by Doe loyalists.

"He was cut to pieces and his flesh was eaten by military people," he said.

Taylor said he was "100 percent positive" the CIA bought weapons used by Quiwonkpa and his rebels in a coup Taylor supported, even though Washington had earlier pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Doe's anti-communist regime.

Griffiths told reporters that by 1985, the U.S. government appeared to be embarrassed by the excesses of the Doe administration so that supporting the Quiwonkpa coup and Taylor's escape was likely "another route to a bit of regime change."

Returning to Africa via Mexico and Belgium, Taylor began recruiting rebel fighters to stage his own coup in Liberia. He sent them for training in Libya at a sprawling former U.S. military base outside Tripoli where they spent two years.

The Libyans "were seriously involved in trying to free the rest of Africa and that is why I think Gadhafi — whether people like it or not — is an African hero," Taylor said, banging his finger hard on his desk.

Plotted to terrorize
Prosecutors allege that Taylor plotted to terrorize the people of Sierra Leone with rebel leaders at the Libyan camp. But he denied forming an alliance there with Sierra Leone rebel leader Ali Kabbah or meeting another key rebel, Foday Sankoh.

He said groups ranging from the African National Congress to the Irish Republican Army sent fighters to the camp.

"It was not a terrorist camp," he said. He said his men were trained "in the laws of war," and instructed on how to win the people's support which was necessary for the revolution to succeed.

Taylor said he never used child soldiers for military operations during his 1989 revolution in Liberia.

"No child was to be recruited, or used or trained for military activities," he told a three-judge panel.

Griffiths lead his client through a reconstruction of his life, from his "humble" birth to the circumstances of his 1997-2003 presidency. That effort aimed to draw a picture of a peacemaker rather than the cannibalistic warlord described by prosecutors at the U.N.-backed court.

Big power politics
On Wednesday, Taylor spoke confidently about topics ranging from tribal rivalries to big power politics to a personal life strewn with an overlapping procession of wives and girlfriends and stints in jails in three countries.

Doe was the first Liberian leader of an aboriginal origin in a country that had been led for more than 130 years by freed American slaves and their descendants, who rarely mixed with the purely African population. Taylor, the son of an American-Liberian judge and his maid, parlayed his mixed background to gain entry to both groups.

Armed with an economics degree from the United States, he became a midlevel member of Doe's government.

Taylor, who is alleged to have siphoned millions of dollars when he became Liberia's president, said he took action to rein in rampant corruption among Doe's ministers and aides.

"That made me very unpopular," Taylor said.

His unpopularity led to embezzlement allegations, Taylor said, while categorically denying the claim.

Taylor fled Liberia to the United States in 1983. He said he left out of fear for his life under the increasingly autocratic Doe regime.