A very British coup? Top Tories dragged into brewing heir's African adventure

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The Independent Online

A former captain in the SAS, with connections to the British establishment, will face court in Zimbabwe this week, accused of planning a coup in an oil-rich African country.

A former captain in the SAS, with connections to the British establishment, will face court in Zimbabwe this week, accused of planning a coup in an oil-rich African country.

In a gripping tale of crime and politics, the trial of Simon Mann will hear allegations about a murder plot against a dictator accused of cannibalism. Mr Mann, whose father was an England cricket captain, is the scion of the Watney brewing empire. With 69 other men, he has been charged with trying to overthrow Teodoro Obiang, the President of Equatorial Guinea.

Their fellow conspirators, it is claimed, were the President's relations, Severo Moto Nsa, an exiled opposition leader, and Ely Calil, a London-based millionaire oil trader, who is a former financial adviser to Jeffrey Archer, the disgraced peer who was a former deputy chairman of the Tory party. The prize, it is said, was not just power, but vast sums from oil concessions.

The case has other connections with prominent Tories. Mr Mann has asked for help from Mark Thatcher, his neighbour in Constantia, one of the most expensive suburbs of Cape Town, and David Hart, the Old Etonian businessman who was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher during the miners' strike. Mr Mann's friends are being advised by Lord Bell, Mrs Thatcher's former public relations guru.

In a letter from the Chikurubi prison on 31 March, Mr Mann, 51, told his wife, Amanda, and his legal team: "Our situation is not good and it is very URGENT. They [the lawyers] get no reply from Smelly and Scratcher [who] asked them to ring back after the Grand Prix race was over! This is not going well. I must say once again: what will get us out is MAJOR CLOUT. We need heavy influence of the sort that ... Smelly, Scratcher ... David Hart, and it needs to be used heavily and now. Once we get into a real trial scenario we are f****d." South African colleagues of Mr Mann, say Scratcher is Mark Thatcher, and Smelly is Mr Calil.

Lord Bell's organisation said Mr Thatcher and Mr Hart had no knowledge of the alleged coup plot, and had merely been asked by Mr Mann for help. Mr Calil, of Lebanese extraction, who made his fortune in Nigerian oil, lives in a £12m house in Chelsea. Imran Khan, his London solicitor, said: "We will vigorously defend the allegations, which are without foundation."

Mr Obiang was named in a US Senate investigation into money-laundering involving a Washington financial house, Riggs Bank. Investigators said the President and his family had "misappropriated" at least £35m from national oil revenues. Opposition groups accuse him of eating the testicles of executed prisoners in the belief it will give him martial prowess. President Obiang is represented by the London law firm Penningtons, which has launched a civil action in London for damages against Mr Mann and Mr Calil for an alleged conspiracy to assassinate their client.

Mr Mann and his fellow defendants were arrested at Harare airport when they flew in from South Africa. The authorities said their chartered Boeing 737, which was impounded, was to fly mortars, Kalashnikovs, and 30,000 rounds of ammunition to Equatorial Guinea.

The men have been charged under public order and security laws, as well as immigration, firearms and aviation offences. If found guilty, they could be fined and jailed. But reports in Harare say President Robert Mugabe has agreed to a personal request from President Obiang to extradite the men, if they are convicted, to Equatorial Guinea, where they would face the death penalty.

Eleven years ago, Mr Mann set up a security company, Executive Outcomes, with a businessman, Tony Buckingham, which became involved in some of the most high-profile conflicts in Africa. It made millions protecting oil installations in Angola from Unita rebels, and operated against insurgents for the Sierra Leone government. A subsidiary company, Sandline International - set up with a former Scots Guard officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Spicer - was at the centre of the so-called "arms to Sierra Leone" affair in the late 1990s.

Mr Mann and the other accused insist they knew nothing about the Equatorial Guinea plot. Instead, they were simply organising security for a diamond mining company in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The arms, bought for $190,000 (£101,500) from a state-owned company in Zimbabwe were intended for the security guards.

In the Equatorial Guinea capital, Malabo, police arrested Nick du Toit, a South African who worked with Mr Mann at Executive Outcomes. Mr du Toit had been meeting the ruling family, he claims, to negotiate fishing rights and a contract for customs control. The Equatorial government say he was plotting with members of the clan who did not want Mr Obiang's son, Teodorin, to succeed him, and he was also trying to suborn the President's Moroccan bodyguards.

In an alleged confession, Mr Mann said he met Mr Calil in London, and he offered to introduce him to Mr Moto. Mr Mann says he was introduced to an opposition figure who claimed he was forced to watch Mr Obiang rape his wife.

The statement continues: "I met Severo Moto ... He is a good and honest man ... they asked me if I could help escort Severo Moto home at a given moment when simultaneously there would be an uprising of military and civilians against Obiang. I agreed and I tried to help the cause."

Mr du Toit has also allegedly confessed in Malabo, describing a coup d'etat in which Mr Obiang would be flown to Spain, where the exiles are based, "if not killed in the operation". Lawyers for Mr Mann and Mr du Toit say the statements were beaten out of them.