MONROVIA, LIBERIA, JUNE 13 -- The court-martial of four Liberian army soldiers accused of murdering three prominent citizens last weekend -- in an incident that has typified this nation's sixth-month-old civil war -- got underway today in a sweltering military barracks with a haphazard and unruly judicial proceeding.

The elderly, court-appointed defense counsel, visibly trembling with rage, protested that he did not have enough time to prepare for the case and did not even know what the charges were. The gavel-hammering judge hectored and reprimanded the defendants when they requested civilian lawyers. The prosecutor cackled so loudly and often it was difficult for onlookers to hear.

The trial -- which the Liberian government encouraged foreign journalists to attend -- seemed to signal an attempt by the beleaguered government of President Samuel K. Doe to come to grips with a national crisis.

As rebels of the National Patriotic Front have pressed toward the capital, the government's uncontrolled and undisciplined army troops have been accused of robbing, killing and raping civilians.

Today's proceeding was the opening step in a strange but swift course of jurisprudence that -- if they are convicted -- could end with the defendants' execution by firing squad on an Atlantic Ocean beach barely 400 yards from the courtroom, possibly as soon as Thursday.

"You shoot someone and leave him . . . and you think no one can find you?" asked Col. Isaac Nyeplu, the gruff military judge running the proceeding as he scoffed at efforts by defendant Pvt. James Greer to obtain a civilian lawyer.

At one point, Col. James Doe Gibson, the white-haired defense counsel who apparently has difficulties hearing, hobbled up to the judge in evident exasperation and stammered, "We don't have any notice of what these men are being charged for!"

"Counsel Gibson, I am not going to entertain any lawless attitudes in this court!" the judge shot back, rapping his gavel and ordering the geriatric lawyer to return to his seat.

The defendants are charged with killing a suburban Monrovian mayor, a council member and a town elder during a search for rebels. Witnesses said the victims were abducted by soldiers after they protested a round-up of young men in the area and looting by government troops.

The victims' bodies, riddled with bullets, were discovered on a roadside the following day. The dead men were widely known and respected Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed American slaves who helped found this West African republic in 1822. Their killings have triggered an exodus of thousands of fearful Americo-Liberians from Liberia in recent days, and represented a grim twist in a civil war that has inflamed Liberia's long-standing ethnic tensions.

The rebel leader, Charles Taylor, is an Americo-Liberian. Human-rights groups have protested that both sides in the fighting have killed numerous civilians -- with government troops, who belong mostly to the Krahn ethnic group of President Doe, targeting civilians of the Gio and Mano tribes, to which most of the rebels belong. The rebels, meantime, have killed Mandingo civilians, whom they view as allies of the Krahns.

As officials of the Liberian government and the rebels completed the second day of peace talks today in Freetown, capital of neighboring Sierra Leone, the Doe government remains under fire from many quarters here -- including the foreign diplomatic community, which released a statement of protest Tuesday over the killings -- to control its 4,000-man army.

During today's three hours of talks, the rebels repeated their demand that Doe step down as a condition for a cease-fire and settlement.

Liberian army Maj. Henry K. Johnson, Lt. Andrew S. Gaye, Lt. Arthur T. Nyenabo and Pvt. Greer are among the first soldiers to be arrested in connection with any of the killings of civilians in recent months. When asked if the purpose of the court-martial was to set an example for the army, the army chief of staff, Henry Dubar replied, "Exactly. We can't have the army killing the people." He promised a "speedy trial."

There seemed to be few rules or any order to the proceedings, which took place amid the steady loud clacking of a dictationist's typewriter. It ended after an hour or so with the judge complying with the defendants' request for civilian lawyers but warning them not to delay the trial on any further "frivolous grounds."

"You see all these people? We have the local and international press here," the judge exclaimed. "We must be responsible."

Johnson, a thick-set fellow, seemed resigned to his fate as he sat with his co-defendants at a wooden table. At one point he stood up and asked softly, "May I say something, sir? Let's proceed with the case."

Afterward, Johnson insisted he was innocent of the charges.

"How can I be shot if I am not guilty?" he said, shortly before being led back to a jail cell by an escort of soldiers.