Mark Thatcher admits coup plot charge

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Sir Mark Thatcher today admitted bankrolling a coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in a plea bargain deal which allows him to avoid jail.

Sir Mark Thatcher today admitted bankrolling a coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in a plea bargain deal which allows him to avoid jail.

Margaret Thatcher's businessman son appeared in court in South Africa where he agreed to pay a £270,000 (3 million rand) fine in return for his freedom.

Thatcher admits he paid for a military helicopter used by mercenaries in the alleged coup plot but claims he believed it was to be used as an air ambulance for humanitarian purposes, according to a source close to his family.

He pleaded guilty today in the Cape High Court to breaching section two of South Africa's anti-mercenary Foreign Military Assistance Act.

Judge Abe Motala said that if he failed to pay the fine, he would face a five-year prison sentence with a further four years suspended for five years.

Thatcher, who has lived in South Africa since 1995, was said to be relieved at the outcome.

Details of the plea bargain deal, which means Thatcher can join his family in the US, first emerged last night.

A source claimed: "The charges he has pleaded to do not include anything connected with an attempted coup.

"Section two is to do with acting recklessly over information. He financed the hiring of the helicopter, to be used as an air ambulance, began to suspect it would be used for another purpose, and he never informed authorities."

A spokesman for Lady Thatcher's office said last night: "She is very relieved that matters have now been settled and that the worry of these last few months is now over."

Thatcher was arrested at his suburban Cape Town home on August 25 and charged with breaking the country's anti-mercenary laws.

He also faces charges in Equatorial Guinea, which claims that he and other, mainly British, financiers commissioned the bid to overthrow the 25-year regime of President Teodoro Obiang.

Plotters were said to have worked with the tiny country's opposition figures, scores of African mercenaries and six Armenian pilots in the takeover attempt foiled in March.

They had intended to install an opposition politician as the figurehead leader of Africa's third largest oil producer, prosecutors said.

Thatcher and his lawyers did not address a large crowd of journalists gathered outside the Cape Town courthouse as they arrived this morning for the brief appearance.

A poster reading "Save me mummy" hung from a window across the street.

The coup plot, led by an Old Etonian, led to questions in the House of Commons.

The saga began in March when Eton and Sandhurst-educated ex-SAS captain Simon Mann was held in Zimbabwe along with a group of mercenaries over the plot.

Five months after the Zimbabwe arrests Sir Mark was arrested at his Cape Town home and charged in South Africa with violating its anti-mercenary law - a charge he had always denied until now.

Late last year it turned out that the UK Government had known about the plot five weeks before the mercenaries were arrested for planning it.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw faced questions from his Tory shadow Michael Ancram about exactly what he had known at the time.

Mann received a seven-year jail sentence in Zimbabwe in September for trying to buy arms from that country's state arms manufacturer.

But that sentence was cut by three years at the High Court in Zimbabwe this week, it emerged today.

"The jail term was reduced from seven to four years during a review in the High Court," Mann's lawyer Jonathan Samkange said.

Some 67 of Mann's accomplices were sentenced by a Zimbabwe court to terms from 12 months to 16 months for minor immigration and aviation violations.

Three others later pleaded guilty to violating South Africa's Foreign Military Assistance Act.

South African arms dealer Nick du Toit was jailed for 34 years in Equatorial Guinea for his role while exiled opposition figure Severo Moto was sentenced to 63 years in his absence, with eight others also living abroad receiving 52 years each.

Six South African mercenaries were given 17 years each and three Armenian pilots hired to fly in gunmen and material received 24 years each in prison, and three others 14 years each.

After pleading guilty, Thatcher said: "There is no price too high for me to be reunited with my family and I am sure all of you who are husbands and fathers would agree with that."

Standing outside the court and toying with a set of worry beads, Thatcher said that part of the deal was that he did not comment except for an official statement issued by his legal team.

Part of this statement read: "It should be noted that Sir Mark was not charged with any involvement in the attempted coup d'etat in Equatorial Guinea.

"The plea bargain was entered into solely as a result of his financing of the charter of a helicopter in circumstances where he should have exercised more caution."

Sipho Ngwema, spokesman South Africa's Directorate of Special Investigations, also known as Scorpions, said Thatcher had pledged to co-operate fully with continuing investigations into South African involvement in the coup bid.

"He is co-operating fully with our investigation, so we are happy," Mr Ngwema said.

Thatcher's lawyer's statement confirmed this saying: "As will appear from the agreement, he will continue to co-operate, to the limited extent of his knowledge of the matter."

Asked if Thatcher was now able to leave South Africa, Mr Ngwema said: "There is nothing in the agreement that limits him, but he is going to co-operate with our investigation and that's what we are happy with."

According to the plea bargain agreement, Thatcher said his friend Mann told him in November 2003 that he was getting involved in a transport venture in West Africa.

Mann asked whether Thatcher could help him by chartering a Bell Jet Ranger III helicopter for this purpose.

Thatcher told Mann he would be interested in becoming involved.

In early December 2003, Thatcher became aware of two Alouette II helicopters available for sale and told Mann.

Mann asked Thatcher to contact Crause Steyl, who operated his own air ambulance company, and who, according to Mann, had the "necessary experience" to give advice.

Thatcher met Steyl at Lanseria airport, Johannesburg, where they discussed cost options with reference to the Alouette and other options that might be available.

Thatcher said he later began to doubt Mann's true intentions and suspected Mann might be planning mercenary activity in West Africa.

"The accused began to suspect that the helicopter might in fact be intended for use in such mercenary activity.

"Despite his misgivings the accused decided to invest money in the charter of the helicopter.

"In fact Mann and Steyl did intend to use the helicopter in mercenary activity," read the plea bargain statement.

Shortly before January 9 2004, Thatcher was asked by Mann to make a payment of 20,000 US dollars to reserve the helicopter, which he did.

Scorpions prosecutor Anton Ackermann told Judge Motala today that it was in the interests of the administration of justice that the case be disposed of as quickly as possible.

"One of the reasons being that the accused will assist the prosecution with further investigations in this matter," Mr Ackermann said.

Thatcher, 51, is expected to join his American wife Diane and children, Michael, 15, and Amanda, 11, in Texas once his his passport has been returned by the South African authorities.

He is believed to have discussed his decision to admit the charge with his mother when she visited him recently.

Baroness Thatcher, 79, made the trip despite suffering a number of minor strokes in recent years.

His sister Carol told London's Evening Standard: "She was there over Christmas and New Year.

"I don't know what was said. But you have to remember that she is a trained lawyer."