Nelson Bunker Hunt - once one of the wealthiest men in the world - is telling a federal court jury his version of what led to the world silver market crash in 1980.

In his opening testimony this week in a multimillion-dollar civil trial in federal court, Hunt essentially repeated assertions made by defense lawyers in their opening statements in February.Hunt, 62, his brothers William Herbert Hunt, 59, and Lamar Hunt, 55, are being sued by a South American silver concern that says they manipulated the world silver market eight years ago.

Minpeco S.A., a mineral marketing company owned by the Peruvian government, claims the three brothers conspired to corner the world silver market in 1979 and 1980.

Lawyers for Minpeco claim the Hunts and several co-defendants were responsible for the sharp rise in silver prices from about $9 an ounce to more than $50 an ounce between September 1979 and January 1980.

Minpeco claims the skyrocketing prices caused the company to lose more than $100 million when the world silver market collapsed in March 1980, with prices falling back to about $10 an ounce.

But the elder Hunt brother claimed he began investing in silver bullion and silver futures because of "continuing inflation and certain political events."

Hunt, who said he began investing in silver in 1973, said that by the fall of 1979 he was still telling people that "silver was an overall good investment."

But 1979 was "a very unsettling year, politically," Hunt said in a low Texas drawl, noting the Iranian revolution that ousted the shah and took American diplomats hostage in Teheran, a continuing increase in oil prices, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the seizure of the Grand Mosque at Mecca by Islamic radicals.

Hunt, whose legendary father, H.L. Hunt, made the family fortune in oil, said as oil prices began climbing - to about $30 in late 1979 - he bought more and more silver.

But he claimed that new commodity exchange rules limiting the number of futures contracts that could be held as well as increasing the amount to be put down on margin accounts "was a difficult thing for the market."