How an assassin bungled a deadly umbrella plot

A bizarre assassination plot involving a poisoned umbrella and an accident-prone hitman, which was set in London in the mid-Eighties, has been unfolding in a South African court.

The apartheid-era chemical and germ warfare expert, Dr Wouter Basson, who is on trial at the Pretoria High Court on 61 charges of murder, fraud and drug trafficking, has been dubbed "Dr Death" by the South African media. However, the story being told in court this week is more akin to the twisted thinking of a Dr Strangelove in a B-grade spy novel.

Until this week, the trial had focused on chilling evidence from self-confessed killers who admitted to slaughtering hundreds of captured guerrillas from Namibia. The PoWs, who were fighting in the 1980s for their country's freedom from South African occupation, were poisoned or beaten to before being flung into the sea from aircraft. Dr Basson has denied accusations that he provided killer drugs to the murderers.

But the macabre turned to the ridiculous as a witness told of a bungled plan in 1986 and 1987 to kill leading African National Congress officials living in exile in London.

The plot was described by Trevor Floyd, a member of the innocuously-named Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB), a defence force hit-squad.

The targets were Dr Pallo Jordan, an MP and a former minister in Nelson Mandela's Cabinet, and South Africa's Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Ronnie Kasrils. And the proposed murder weapon was an umbrella.

Mr Floyd told the court that, having read of a similar ploy used by Bulgarian assassins to kill the dissident BBC World Service journalist Georgi Markov, he decided to use an umbrella to fire darts laced with poison. Having been given the go-ahead by his boss, CCB's "managing director", Colonel Joe Verster, he duly acquired an umbrella from Europe, presumably to prevent the killer being traced to South Africa.

Mr Floyd, a self-confessed State killer, said he was instructed to fly to London, where he would be given the umbrella after its transformation.

He duly linked up in Britain with a man who had identified himself as Jan Lourens, a Special Forces agent, and who was to supply him with the umbrella. They drove to a farm that Mr Lourens said was used by people including Dr Basson while they were in England.

Mr Floyd told Mr Justice Hartzenberg: "He went into the house and brought the gadget out. When you pressed it against skin, the spikes shot into the body and, if filled with the poison substance, they could be deadly."

It was then that the assassination bid started coming off the rails. As Mr Lourens demonstrated how to use the umbrella, some of the poison spilled onto his finger. Mr Floyd said: "I thought he was going to die. I told him to drink milk and to lie down for a while because I did not know the area and I would not be able to rush him to hospital." But Mr Lourens felt fine after about 10 minutes.

Armed with his umbrella, Mr Floyd set off back to London. He soon found he had another problem - the killing attachment made the umbrella too long and there was a real danger of the tip accidentally hitting the ground and dispensing its poison spikes prematurely. So he carried out his own modification, attaching the gadget to the umbrella with a "hair-curling tongs".

Now Mr Floyd was armed and in place. But the intended victims were not. Dr Jordan had moved and Mr Kasrils was not often "at his place". The plot was abandoned and the umbrella thrown into the Thames.

Dr Basson is not facing charges over this conspiracy. The judge had ruled earlier that he could not be tried on alleged crimes committed outside South Africa. But Mr Justice Hartzenberg allowed the evidence after the defence counsel argued it could refute Dr Basson's assertion that he had supplied operatives with sedatives only, and never with deadly substances.

Mr Floyd told the court the poison had come from a civilian front-company which housed the South African defence force's chemical division. He also said Dr Basson had given him a deadly mixture for another failed murder plan - smearing the door handles of a car with a poison.

These bizarre murder plots apart, the Dr Basson trial has opened up areas of mass murder untouched on by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which heard horror testimonies, but only from victims and those who chose to apply for amnesty.

The Basson trial is expected to last up to three years.

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