ARTHUR MAX

The Associated Press

AMSTERDAM (AP) -In three weeks on the witness stand, Charles Taylor has painted a portrait of an African strongman navigating rebellions and palace intrigue, and ultimately failing in a struggle to survive as Liberia's president.

By turns vitriolic and professorial, Taylor is lifting a veil during his war crimes trial on the life of a guerrilla commander who fought enemies across borders and at home to seize his country's presidential mansion, and had aspirations to become a pan-African leader.

He has sought to counter claims he was a cannibalistic tyrant trading human lives for diamonds in neighboring Sierra Leone by describing himself as a democrat and statesman surrounded by enemies consumed with the notion to "get Taylor."

The detailed narrative is fascinating, if selective.

"He's a great communicator," says David Crane, the prosecutor who drew up Taylor's indictment six years ago. "He's just not telling the whole story,"

As president, Taylor felt under siege, rarely trusting those around him.

When he traveled, he rode in a convoy with two presidential limousines so that potential attackers would never know which car he was in.

He says he created a broad government, bringing in former enemies in an attempt at national reconciliation. But he acknowledged keeping them under constant surveillance.

"Everybody is watching his movements, his attitude," Taylor said of Varmuyan Sherif, a former bodyguard who testified against him.

"This was a man who just tried to kill me" when he was a general in an opposing militia. Taylor said that Sherif, who described himself as close to the president, was never allowed to carry a weapon in his presence.

Taylor is the first defense witness at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague. His testimony is likely to continue several weeks more, and the defense has lined up another 200 potential witnesses.

He is accused of 11 counts of murder, rape, sexual slavery, cruelty, forced labor and recruiting child soldiers as he supported rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone. He has denied all allegations.

His British lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, is leading him through a month-by-month account of his rise to power, from the invasion of his rebel force in 1989 to overthrow the tyrannical regime of Samuel K. Doe to his 1997 election and his own ouster in 2003, when his government was accused of surpassing Doe's in brutality.

Along the way Taylor describes encounters with former allies and opponents, as well as his sometimes tumultuous personal affairs with a succession of wives and girlfriends. He casually name-drops acquaintances like Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the current Liberian leader and Africa's first woman president, was a former supporter and fundraiser with whom Taylor said his relations "had gotten rocky." Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Taylor said, was friendly and encouraging of Liberia's "democratic reforms" during a telephone conversation, even though the country was then under a U.N. embargo.

He is usually sedate but has moments of jocularity and sudden flashes of venom using calculated moments of outrage to deny allegations against him and denounce witnesses as liars or madmen.

That atrocities happened in Sierra Leone is undeniable. For more than a year prosecutors brought a parade of victims displaying the stumps of limbs hacked off by rebels and women who told of being dragged off into slavery.

The defense strategy must be to dissuade the three judges that Taylor was responsible for the rebel actions and to undermine the prosecution's allegations that he had a command-and-control function over the militias to gain access to Sierra Leone's mineral wealth.

Crane, who is now a Syracuse University law professor, said Taylor was trying to portray himself as Liberia's savior and as a victim of circumstances. "He steps very quickly over the 1.2 million human beings that he destroyed in 10 years."

Alpha Sesay, a Sierra Leone lawyer who writes a daily summary of the trial for an Internet site, says Taylor has been trying at every turn to distance himself from the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF.

"Many of us used to think that Taylor was reckless. But now, listening, you can see that as president he tried to cover every trace of his association with the RUF," said Sesay, whose own family repeatedly were chased from their homes by rebels.

In that regard, Taylor's performance so far has been "brilliant," he said. "I've always known he is a smooth talker. He can be very very convincing."