Ex-SAS man linked to coup plot is guilty of illegal arms deal

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A former SAS officer accused of being the ringleader of a plot to stage a coup in a small oil-rich African state was yesterday convicted of attempting to buy arms for the venture.

A former SAS officer accused of being the ringleader of a plot to stage a coup in a small oil-rich African state was yesterday convicted of attempting to buy arms for the venture.

Simon Mann, a friend of Sir Mark Thatcher, pleaded guilty to trying to obtain weapons when he appeared in court in Zimbabwe.

Sixty-six men arrested with Mann during the alleged coup plan for Equatorial Guinea were freed after the magistrate in Harare decided that the prosecution had failed to prove that they had knowingly undertaken a military mission.

Two of those released, Harry Carlse and Lourens Horn, both South Africans, were hired to inspect a consignment of weapons intended to be used in the alleged plot. They plan to get the first available flight to South Africa, but have refused to talk to journalists until they have been questioned by the South African authorities.

The alleged plot gained international attention this week when Baroness Thatcher's son was charged in South Africa with financing the enterprise.

According to court documents in Equatorial Guinea, where another set of alleged conspirators is on trial, anyone backing the coup would have been rewarded with oil money.

Mann had insisted that the weapons were intended for guarding a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But his case was rejected by the Zimbabwean court and he now faces up to 15 years in prison in Zimbabwe. His position could worsen if he is extradited to Equatorial Guinea, where he could face the death penalty.

Yesterday it emerged that the alleged conspiracy to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema and replace him with the exiled opposition leader Severo Moto in the west African state was infiltrated by the South African security service at an early stage, according to that country's intelligence minister, Ronnie Kasrils.

Three agents are said to have been among those held when a chartered US-registered plane carrying the men landed at Harare on 7 March, supposedly on its way to the capital of Equatorial Guinea, Malabo.

A separate trial of 14 others accused of being involved in the plot, including their alleged leader, Nick du Toit, is taking place in Malabo. Judges there have ordered fresh questioning of witnesses after South African police arrested Sir Mark Thatcher in Cape Town on Wednesday.

Mr Du Toit had claimed while giving evidence that he had met Sir Mark while the coup was being planned, and that Sir Mark had agreed to invest in "military hardware".

Mann's lawyers are confident of preventing his extradition to Equatorial Guinea. It is more likely, they say, that the former soldier, who has dual British and South African nationality, will serve part of his sentence in South Africa.

A friend of Mann, who saw him recently at the maximum security Chikurubi prison outside Harare, said he appeared to be in good health.

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