Agents on mission to kill: South African intelligence operators who plotted with Ulster loyalists to assassinate police defector in Britain were foiled by tip-off to MI6

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The Independent Online
(Photograph omitted)

Dirk Coetzee walking the London street yesterday that his would-be killers staked out. Mr Coetzee is a former South African security policeman who turned on his old employers in 1989 and fled to Zambia, where he told about his role poisonings and wayside murders carried out by undercover South African security agents. He sought asylum in Britain in March 1991. Mr Coetzee was a key witness in the Harms Judicial Commission, which looked into political assassinations, and he named senior policemen as instigators of murder. He says his former colleagues want him dead because he joined the ANC and said he intended to return to South Africa and investigate the death squads.

TWO South African agents on a secret mission to London this spring plotted with Ulster loyalist paramilitaries to assassinate the South African defector Dirk Coetzee, considered the number one traitor by former police colleagues.

The plot was foiled by a tip-off to British intelligence from a concerned officer within the South African police. The two agents, one a woman captain in military intelligence, were followed from their arrival at Heathrow Airport on 11 April until 15 April when they were arrested as they were about to fly back to South Africa.

Together with one of their Ulster contacts, they were interrogated for three days under the Prevention of Terrorism Act before being released and put on a flight home.

Sources close to the investigation believe the agents - Captain Pamela du Randt and Leon Flores, a former policeman on the South African military intelligence payroll - had orders to plan the attack on Mr Coetzee, which would then be carried out by a loyalist hit squad. Du Randt has been identified as the secretary of the head of military intelligence, General Christoffel van der Westhuizen.

The two agents were met at Heathrow by an Ulsterman with known South African connections, the same man who was later detained with them on 15 April. He took them to a pub in West Kensington, The Three Kings in North End Road, where they met three loyalist paramilitaries.

Two of these men were subsequently watched as they reconnoitred a flat in Hinde Street, in the West End of London, where Mr Coetzee lived with his two teenage children. By that time, he had been out of London for two weeks. The two South Africans checked into the Royal National Hotel in Bloomsbury, using genuine passports in their own names.

Mr Coetzee is a potential prime target of hardliners within South African security, not only because he defected but because he subsequently joined the African National Congress (ANC) and might give evidence about abuses perpetrated by former colleagues. He has been in London under police protection since March 1991. He told the Independent last night: 'Scotland Yard confirmed to me that this was a very serious attempt on my life. I missed death by the skin of my arse.'

The British authorities informed the government of F W de Klerk about the operation when du Randt and Flores were detained. The South African President promised his full cooperation and recently dispatched a trusted senior law officer to London. Michael Hodgen, the acting Attorney-General of the Eastern Cape, had talks last month with British officials investigating the South Africa-Ulster link. He also met Mr Coetzee and officials of the ANC , which had also been informed by the British about the assassination plot. On 8 May, Mr de Klerk also appointed Mr Hodgen to head an investigation into the murder of the black activist Matthew Goniwe in 1985 in which suspicion falls on General van der Westhuizen's security forces. The general is reported to have handed over an affidavit to Mr Hodgen on 15 May.

Although the mission was clearly authorised at a high level, there is no evidence that either Mr de Klerk or any of his ministers was aware of the plot. The revelations may give him ammunition with which to crack down on uncontrolled elements within his intelligence community.

After the two agents were released and returned to South Africa, Mr de Klerk ordered military intelligence to carry out a full investigation. This concluded that there had been a plot to kill Mr Coetzee involving some collusion by desk officers within military intelligence, although it implied that ultimate responsibility lay within the police force. The matter was referred to the South African police for further investigation.

During their three days of interrogation, du Randt and Flores made no attempt to disguise their identities but they stuck relentlessly to their cover story - that they were in London to investigate alleged links between the IRA and the ANC.

The sources close to the investigation, however, say that the true nature of the mission was suspected even before the couple arrived at Heathrow. The tip-off to MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, revealed that two agents were bound for London on an unspecified mission. British intelligence had been aware for some time of the threat against Mr Coetzee from hardliners in South African police and security circles. MI5, the Security Service, and Metropolitan Police Special Branch were called in to handle the surveillance operation once the two suspects landed.

The tip-off, coupled with the results of the surveillance, provided circumstantial evidence of the plot. But in the absence of confession by the two agents, the decision was taken to release them. They were flown out, without fanfare, during the Easter weekend. The loyalist paramilitaries decamped to Belfast, where they are presumed to be under continued surveillance by the security authorities.

Neither the loyalists nor the organisation to which they belong have been identified. There are proven links between South African security and the loyalist movement. Since 1985 South Africa has tried to obtain Britain's latest anti-aircraft missile technology developed at Shorts in Belfast by offering loyalist paramilitaries money and guns in exchange for parts and blueprints. Three Ulstermen, a South African diplomat and an American arms dealer were arrested in Paris for arms trafficking in 1989. Last year an exiled South African academic, Adrian Guelke, was the target of a botched assassination attempt in Belfast by gunmen of the underground Ulster Freedom Fighters. The UFF said the attack was a case of mistaken identity.

Since the London incident at Easter, the South African government has been asked by Britain to provide full details of covert links between its security forces and loyalist groups.

The plot; unit disbanded, page 9

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