Former Liberian President Charles Taylor's war crimes trial could begin as early as April 2, according to a tentative date set by the Special Court for Sierra Leone on Friday.

Taylor has pleaded innocent to 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for allegedly overseeing the murder, rape and mutilation of thousands of people during Sierra Leone's bloody 10-year civil war, many hacked to death with machetes. He faces a life sentence if convicted.

At a pretrial hearing in The Hague, judge Julia Sebutinde said Taylor had already been in custody for a long time and had the right for his trial to start as quickly as possible.

"I am concerned about the need to try Mr. Taylor without undue delay," she said.

But she added: "This is a tentative trial date ... to assist the parties and the bench to work toward the final trial date."

Taylor's defense attorney Karim Khan said he thought it was "a fabulous idea" to set a tentative date, but argued that he was unlikely to be ready for trial until September 2007 because of the volume of evidence.

So far, prosecutors have provided Khan with 32,000 pages of evidence and Khan said that to spend just five minutes checking each page would take 333 eight-hour working days.

Taylor, wearing a gray pinstripe suit and brown tie, sat in court chewing gum and making notes on a pad during Friday's hearing. He did not speak.

The charges against Taylor stem from his alleged backing of Sierra Leonean rebels, who terrorized victims by chopping off body parts.

Taylor also launched a Liberian insurgency in 1989 and won elections that handed him the presidency in 1997. Rebels took up arms against him three years later, and he fled to Nigeria in 2003 at the end of Liberia's 14-year civil war.

In March, he was captured as he attempted to slip out of Nigeria after the country agreed to hand him over to authorities seeking his prosecution.

Taylor is being held in a cell block operated by the International Criminal Court in a wing of the same maximum-security Dutch prison where former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died in March while on trial for genocide and war crimes.

Taylor was flown to the Netherlands in June amid fears that staging his trial in Sierra Leone could trigger fresh unrest in the war-scarred African nation.