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Last Updated: Monday, 3 April 2006, 21:36 GMT 22:36 UK
A sombre Charles Taylor faces court
By James Copnall
BBC News, Freetown

Outside the special war crimes court, members of civil society in their Sunday best and war victims with amputated limbs queued up to watch Charles Taylor come face-to-face with justice.

UN tribunal in progress
Many Sierra Leoneans had been waiting for this moment

Then the blue-helmeted UN soldiers from Mongolia sprinted to take up their places and the armoured car that glittered in the sun revved its engine nervously.

A white car with smoke-tinted windows pulled out of the prison gates and slowly drove the short distance to the court room.

Charles Taylor arrived in court under heavy security, as befits a man who once escaped from a US jail and who attempted to flee his Nigerian exile only last week.

In the court, Mr Taylor, who is known for his flamboyant dress sense and charismatic speech, appeared as sombre as his dark suit.

He listened, betraying little emotion, as the 11 charges were read out against him.

Most definitely, I... could not have committed these acts against the sister republic of Sierra Leone
Charles Taylor

Mr Taylor is accused of bearing responsibility for murder and rape, as well as using child soldiers and forced labour, among other accusations.

The charges were detailed, and the detail was terrifying as places and times of murder and rape were read out to the hushed court.

All the charges relate to the Sierra Leone civil war and Mr Taylor's alleged support for the Revolutionary United Front rebels.

'Miracle' court appearance

The former Liberian president got more animated after the charges were read, most notably when the judge asked him how he wanted to plead.

"There is an issue with this court regarding its right to exercise jurisdiction over me as president of Liberia," he said.

Charles Taylor (l) makes his first court appearance in Freetown, Sierra Leone
Charles Taylor was in court for little more than an hour

"There are issues of how I got here. It is not a matter of me entering a plea as I do not recognise the jurisdiction of this court."

Mr Taylor was eventually persuaded to enter a plea after it was explained to him that the issue of the court's jurisdiction had already been dealt with in the appeal court.

Mr Taylor claimed he was innocent of all charges. "Most definitely, your honour, I could not have committed these acts against the sister republic of Sierra Leone," he said.

"I think this is an attempt to continue to divide and rule the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone, so most definitely I am not guilty."

Shortly afterwards, Mr Taylor left court and was driven with little ceremony back to his solitary prison cell.

His long-awaited day in court had in fact lasted little more than an hour.

But for many Sierra Leoneans it seemed a miracle that the man they accuse of concocting the brutal civil war, that all but destroyed their country, had been dragged before a court at all.

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