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By Aaron Gray-Block
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Prosecutors challenged former Liberian President Charles Taylor over the circumstances of his departure from power as they opened their cross-examination on Tuesday at the first war crimes trial of an African leader.
Taylor, 61, denies all 11 charges of instigating murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery and conscription of child soldiers during the intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in which more than 250,000 people were killed.
Taylor ended his testimony on Tuesday after taking the stand in his own defence on July 14 at the U.N.-backed court for Sierra Leone in The Hague. He argued the case against him was full of lies and that he tried to broker peace in the region.
Prosecutors say Taylor armed and directed Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels to win control of neighbouring Sierra Leone's diamond mines and destabilise its government to boost his regional influence during the country's 1991-2002 civil war.
Taylor had argued in his testimony that, far from fleeing power in 2003, he had stepped down willingly.
The prosecution said that was not supported by a letter Taylor wrote that year to then-U.S. President George W. Bush, and which he had used as evidence in his defence.
"Would you please tell the judges where in that letter you tell the President of the United States that you are stepping down as the President of Liberia?" said Brenda Hollis, principal trial attorney for the prosecution.
Under questioning, Taylor admitted the letter did not contain that exact wording, but stressed he had offered to Bush to withdraw from the political process.
"That is the language, politically I am stating to the president that I will not be in the process," Taylor said.
Taylor was indicted by the Sierra Leone court in June 2003 and under U.S. pressure, resigned from power in August 2003. He accepted asylum in Nigeria, but was later arrested there and transferred to The Hague in July 2006.
Taylor has denied supplying arms to Sierra Leone rebels, saying the British and U.S. governments were involved in supplying weapons to the region as both countries wanted him ousted from power in Liberia.
He says he was the fall guy in an intelligence plot designed to lead to his destruction, and that the United States wanted to gain control of the region's oil reserves.
Taylor's trial, being held in The Hague for security reasons, is the last before the U.N.-backed Sierra Leone court after an appeals ruling last month confirmed jail terms of up to 52 years for three former rebel commanders.
A ruling is expected in the first half of 2010.
Prosecutors called 91 witnesses before wrapping up their case in February. In often disturbing detail, witnesses described how rebels amputated people's limbs and murdered children.
(Additional reporting by Svebor Kranjc and Reed Stevenson, editing by Mark Trevelyan)