Two men tried to behead a British soldier in a "barbarous" killing on a London street, hacking at his body "like a butcher attacking a joint of meat" after running him over, a court was told on Friday.

Michael Adebolajo, 28, and Michael Adebowale, 22, dragged the lifeless body of Fusilier Lee Rigby, a veteran of the Afghan War, into the middle of the street so horrified members of the public could see what they had done, prosecutor Richard Whittam said at the start of the men's trial.

They deny what Whittam called a "cowardly and callous murder" by knocking Rigby down with a car as he crossed a street in Woolwich, southeast London, on the afternoon of May 22 before setting upon his unconscious body with a meat cleaver and knives.

"He was repeatedly stabbed and it appears it was Michael Adebolajo who made a serious and almost successful attempt to decapitate Lee Rigby with multiple blows to his neck made with the meat cleaver," Whittam said.

"They had committed a cowardly and callous murder by deliberately attacking an unarmed man in civilian clothes from behind using a vehicle as a weapon," he added.

The jury of eight women and four men was told Adebolajo, who was carrying a Koran on the day of the attack, had bought a set of five knives and a sharpener the day before. Whittam said it appeared he had picked up Adebowale, who had converted to Islam at 17, on the morning of the killing.

The court fell silent as the jury were shown closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage of the moment the Vauxhall Tigra car drove at Rigby.

Shown CCTV footage

There were gasps in the courtroom as his body was thrown onto the car's windscreen. Rigby's family were among those watching, some close to tears.

Earlier, the court was shown CCTV footage of Rigby, who held a recruiting post and sometimes worked at the Tower of London, walking through Woolwich where his barracks was based.

He was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with "Help for Heroes," a military charity, and was carrying a camouflage-patterned rucksack.

Whittam told the court Amanda Bailey had witnessed the car accelerate into Rigby before carrying him down the road and crashing into a road sign. The driver then got out carrying the cleaver.

"He knelt down by Lee Rigby and took hold of his hair. He then repeatedly hacked at the right side of his neck just below the jawline," Whittam said. "He was using considerable force, bringing his hand into the air each time before he struck."

Bailey saw him hack nine times at Rigby's neck, Whittam said. Witnesses Gary Perkins and Gill Hucks called it an "horrific frenzied attack", he added.

Talking about religion

"He (Perkins) saw Michael Adebolajo sawing at the neck of Lee Rigby with a machete and the other man trying to cut bits of the body by hacking away at it," Whittam said. "He described the actions as being like a butcher attacking a joint of meat."

 Whittam said witness Vikki Cave had heard Adebolajo talking about religion.

 He told her: "These soldiers go to our land, kill or bomb our people, so an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," Whittam told the court.

 He said all witnesses had reported that Rigby appeared to be unconscious before the knife attack took place.

"She saw that his eyes were open but they looked frozen. He wasn't moving or making any noise," said Whittam, referring to Bailey's account.

The jury were told of the bravery of passers-by including one woman who stroked Rigby's lifeless body and another who talked to Adebolajo, despite him holding the cleaver and with his hands covered in blood.

The attack took place yards (metres) from a junior school.

Gun, meat cleaver

Whittam said that after the attack on Rigby the two assailants deliberately waited for the police, scaring off the public by pointing the gun at them.

They tried to attack the armed officers when they arrived, with Adebolajo wielding the cleaver and Adebowale aiming a revolver at them. The gun later turned out to be unloaded. Police shot the two men as Adebolajo closed in on them.

"Had he not been shot it is difficult to think that he would not have succeeded in killing a policeman," Whittam said.

The pair, who the court also heard used the Muslim names Mujahid Abu Hamza for Adebolajo and Ismael Ibn Abdullah for Adebowale, both deny the murder and attempting to kill a police officer. They have pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm.

They watched silently from the dock, flanked by eight security officers.

The trial is expected to last three weeks.