British 'mercenary chief' faces execution in Zimbabwe

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe threatened last night to execute more than 60 suspected mercenaries - among them a former SAS officer - and it accused Britain, Spain and America of helping to orchestrate an attempted coup in the oil-rich African country of Equatorial Guinea.

Zimbabwe threatened last night to execute more than 60 suspected mercenaries - among them a former SAS officer - and it accused Britain, Spain and America of helping to orchestrate an attempted coup in the oil-rich African country of Equatorial Guinea.

Zimbabwe's Foreign Minister, Stan Mudenge, said the men, who were detained when their plane landed in Harare, were on their way to Equatorial Guinea where they were plotting to overthrow the government and seize the head of state. "They are going to face the severest punishment available in our statutes, including capital punishment," he said.

Mr Mudenge claimed his information had been provided by Simon Mann, an Old Etonian and a one-time member of the SAS, who, he said, was waiting for the suspected mercenaries when they were arrested in Harare at the weekend.

Mr Mann has a long association with the private military business and was a senior figure in Sandline, the mercenary group headed by the former British Army lieutenant-colonel Tim Spicer. He founded the now-defunct mercenary group Executive Outcomes.

The Zimbabwean Home Affairs Minister, Kembo Mohadi, claimed Mr Mann had told him the mercenaries were "aided by the British secret service, that is MI6, [the] American Central Intelligence Agency and the Spanish secret service".

The arrests come at a time of heightened tension between Britain and Zimbabwe as the England and Wales Cricket Board considers calling off a planned tour of the country.

Authorities in Equatorial Guinea said they had arrested what they called "an advance party of 15 mercenaries" who they said were plotting to replace the President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, with Severo Moto Nsa, an exiled politician living in Spain.

On Tuesday President Obiang said: "In the course of questioning, we have found they [the alleged mercenaries] were financed by enemy powers, by multinational companies, by countries that do not love us. There are other countries who knew about this attempt and did not contribute information. We will have to qualify them as enemies."

Although Britain, the US and Spain have denied involvement in the alleged operation, there is little doubt Mr Mann's arrest will be an embarrassment to the British establishment. Mr Mann, who comes from a wealthy brewing dynasty and is a former intelligence officer in the British Army, lives in South Africa, where many of the mercenaries employed by private military contractors are from. Diplomatic sources yesterday told the South African Press Agency that all the other men arrested were former members of Unit 32 of the South African National Defence Force, based in Namibia.

Their arrest has focused attention on Equatorial Guinea, a country with an atrocious human rights record and growing importance as an oil producer. President Obiang seized power from his uncle in 1979 and has been wooed by Nigeria and Western oil firms. Last year, his country pumped 350,000 barrels per day, making it the third-largest producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

Critics say the oil wealth has been shared unevenly and human rights groups accuse the government of jailing and torturing opponents.

On Tuesday, the alleged leader of the 15 men arrested in Equatorial Guinea, Nick Dutoit, was shown on national television apparently admitting the coup attempt. "It wasn't a question of taking the life of the head of state but of spiriting him away, taking him to Spain and forcing him into exile and then installing the government-in-exile of Severo Moto Nsa," he said.

According to Mr Mohadi, Mr Dutoit visited Harare with Mr Mann in February when they both made inquiries about buying arms. The authorities in Zimbabwe showed journalists the jet on which the men were travelling when they were arrested and state television showed a cargo of what it called "military material" on board the plane. It included camouflage uniforms, sleeping bags, compasses and wire cutters, but no guns.

Documents show the aircraft, a Boeing 727, is operated by Logo Logistics Ltd, a company believed to have offices in the Channel Islands. Charles Burrows, an executive for the company, said the men were travelling to the DRC to take up a contract to guard mines. He declined to name the customers behind the contract. Asked about the accusations, he told Reuters: "I haven't the foggiest idea of what they're talking about."

Mr Moto yesterday denied any involvement in an attempted coup, said to be funded by a Lebanese businessman. "The people need change but it is unlikely that any change will happen peacefully," he said.

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