Britain helped to foil Africa 'coup' plot

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The Independent Online

British intelligence services stepped in to foil an African coup plot which Sir Mark Thatcher has been accused of helping to finance, according to sources close to the affair.

British intelligence services stepped in to foil an African coup plot which Sir Mark Thatcher has been accused of helping to finance, according to sources close to the affair.

Simon Mann, a former SAS officer, was convicted in Zimbabwe last week on arms charges connected to a failed coup in the oil-rich West African state of Equatorial Guinea last March. More than a dozen alleged mercenaries are on trial for their lives in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea's capital, accused of being the advance guard for Mr Mann and his colleagues. But it was the arrest of Baroness Thatcher's son in South Africa last week that drew worldwide attention to the plot.

Sir Mark, who is on bail of £165,000, is expected to face two charges under South Africa's Foreign Military Assistance Act, which is intended to prevent the country being a base for mercenary activity across the continent. The South African intelligence service has announced publicly that it infiltrated the alleged plot, but The Independent on Sunday has learnt that British agencies were also monitoring preparations. Several figures in Britain have been accused of helping to organise and finance the attempted coup.

The US, whose oil giants have large contracts with the tiny West African state, was also said to be aware of the alleged conspiracy to overthrow Equatorial Guinea's president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, and replace him with an opposition figure said to have been backed by foreign financiers who would have been rewarded with oil concessions and other deals. Sources close to the Obiang regime have accused the former Spanish government of Jose Maria Aznar of complicity in the plot.

"Britain co-operated with South Africa in gathering information about the planned coup and helped to put a stop to it, but its intelligence agencies are happy to let the South Africans take the credit," said one well-informed source.

The plan collapsed when Mr Mann was arrested in Zimbabwe and a plane carrying 64 alleged mercenaries, most of them former members of South Africa's apartheid-era special forces, was seized at Harare airport. Since Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe frequently accuses Britain of attempting to undermine him, it was convenient for South Africa, which maintains cordial relations with its unstable neighbour, to take the leading role.

Last week Zimbabwe acquitted most of Mr Mann's associates of the arms charges, accepting their claim that they did not know what their mission was to be. But South Africa is considering charging them under its anti-mercenary law on their return, and a spokesman for its elite Scorpions investigations squad said it could seek the extradition of Britons against whom there is significant evidence. Neither South Africa nor Britain is willing to extradite suspects to Equatorial Guinea, which retains the death penalty. But a Home Office spokeswoman said that Britain had full extradition relations with South Africa: "Requests for the extradition of British nationals would be considered. The UK always stands ready to fulfil its international obligations."

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