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Anxious wait for secrets of Dr Death

SEVERAL EUROPEAN countries, including Britain, will be watching nervously for sensitive chemical warfare secrets to escape when South Africa's "Doctor Death", Dr Wouter Basson, comes to trial later in the year.

The Pretoria-based cardiologist, whose 274-page indictment lists 64 charges of fraud, murder and conspiracy to murder, was able to launch his 10-year state-subsidised killing spree in the 1980s thanks only to associates, front companies and banks in Britain, Switzerland and Belgium.

The charge sheet against the scientist, who is due to come to trial on 4 October, gives graphic new details of the murders he planned and, in some cases, helped to carry out. He allegedly supplied security agents of the apartheid regime with muscle relaxants which would cause victims' lungs to collapse, leading to suffocation.

In one case he allegedly supplied a live snake and a vial of mamba venom. He allegedly developed roll-on deodorant laced with salmonella. He allegedly supplied, or helped to supply, prisoners' camps in Namibia with cholera bacteria to poison water supplies.

The indictment goes further than the documents released last year by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about his work on Project Coast which was South Africa's chemical and biological warfare programme.

According to prosecuting advocate, Tori Pretorius, who drew up the indictment, Dr Basson's killing career began in 1981 under the codename "Barnacle". The unit's primary function is described in South African Defence Force documents as "eliminations".

The unit - whose work with lethal poisons was beyond the ken of Dr Basson's paymasters in the apartheid government - functioned thanks to dozens of front companies, including one in England named as Fairclough Cottages. Dr Basson made his work sound so complex and secret that, as it proceeded, the government and defence force lost control of their manic scientist. He said he needed funds for front companies which would buy supplies, and the South African regime, apparently, obliged.

Consequently, from 1986 to 1992, Dr Basson allegedly established, without the knowledge of his superiors, at least 13 international front companies or bank accounts, and about 15 local companies and accounts through which he laundered South African government money for his own gain.

He faces 24 charges of fraud for spiriting away hundreds of thousands of dollars to accounts and companies in the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Britain and the US.

He allegedly bought a house in Warfield, Berkshire, a flat in Florida, two flats in Brussels, a share in a Brussels golf club, a King Air and a Jet Star II aircraft and a majority share in a British company called CSD.

It is still not clear to what extent Dr Basson laundered money for re- use by his killing programme, or channelled it away from its intended use, for his own gain. However, Mr Pretorius has gained access to startling documents from the South African Defence Force showing evidence of the use of substances which may have been bought with the money.

Mr Pretorius writes about one incident in 1980: "An overpopulation of Swapo prisoners [South West African People's Organisation - Namibian independence fighters] was experienced at the detention facilities. A decision was taken in Pretoria that Swapo members must be killed and their bodies disposed of. It was decided to purchase an aircraft to throw the remains into the sea. As a result of problems experienced with the first Swapo members who were to be killed, the accused [Basson] was given the task of helping to kill these people.

"The accused began to supply Tuberine and Scoline [muscle relaxants]. The accused explained that if someone was injected with these substances, they would suffocate. The lungs would not function because the lung muscles became inactive." Mr Pretorius writes that about 200 Swapo members were killed in this way. Dr Basson also supplied the Swapo camp guards with pills and cold drink cans injected with poison.

If the charges against Dr Basson - which apart from fraud include 16 murders and 14 counts of conspiracy to murder - are proved in court, a picture will emerge of a contradictory man. Dr Basson told the Truth Commission last year that he had been interested in finding a poison which could, selectively, exterminate black people. At the same time, if the fraud charges are upheld, he was defrauding the very government whose racist policies he aimed to extend to their most extreme conclusion.