Mark Thatcher to plead guilty in bid to escape jail term

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Sir Mark Thatcher has made a dramatic offer to plead guilty to charges of helping a coup plot in Africa to try to settle a case in which he could have faced up to 15 years in a South African jail.

Sir Mark Thatcher has made a dramatic offer to plead guilty to charges of helping a coup plot in Africa to try to settle a case in which he could have faced up to 15 years in a South African jail.

The former prime minister's son is to make an unscheduled appearance in the Cape high court today, South African prosecutors confirmed last night.

They refused to say why, but a source who had seen a document prepared by Sir Mark's legal team told The Independent that he was offering a guilty plea to charges under South Africa's Foreign Military Assistance Act in exchange for a fine of around £300,000, after which he would be allowed to leave the country.

Although the final touches have not yet been put to the plea bargain, a spokesman for the office of his mother, Baroness Thatcher, said: "She is very relieved that matters have now been settled and that the worry of these last few months is now over."

Sir Mark, 51, was arrested in Cape Town in August last year and charged under South Africa's anti-mercenary laws with taking part in an attempt to overthrow the president of the oil-rich state of Equatorial Guinea. While still denying that he knew of the plot, he is offering to plead guilty to aiding it unwittingly by paying for helicopters that would have been used by the mercenaries.

The alleged coup collapsed in March last year after Simon Mann, a former SAS officer and close friend of Sir Mark, was arrested in Zimbabwe with a shipment of arms, having just met a plane carrying more than 60 former members of South Africa's special forces.

Mann is serving a seven-year sentence in Chikurubi prison near Harare for illegal arms buying, but Equatorial Guinea, which accuses him of being the mercenaries' leader, has demanded his extradition, as well as that of Sir Mark.

The plea bargain is seen as a desperate attempt by Sir Mark to extricate himself from an impasse that threatened to keep him in South Africa for years, confined to the Cape Town area and unable to do the business deals by which he has earned his living.

His arrest came the day before he was due to leave the country for good and return to Texas, where his American wife, Diane, and their two children are living.

Although he was joined by his mother at Christmas, he has spent several months alone in the family mansion in Constantia, one of the wealthiest areas of Cape Town.

The financier, who recently replaced his legal team, was in a worsening position as a succession of South Africans implicated in the coup struck plea bargains, under which they avoided jail in return for agreeing to testify against him.

The most prominent was Crause Steyl, a pilot who served in the apartheid-era special forces. He claimed that Sir Mark was fully aware of the plot, flew a helicopter to test its suitability for use in the coup, and paid two amounts, totalling $275,000 (£145,000), into a company run by Mr Steyl. Sir Mark admits paying the money, but insists it was for an air ambulance service run by the pilot.

Although Sir Mark and his lawyers insisted that he would have full answers to the allegations against him once the case reached court, the South African authorities seemed in little haste to build a case against him. His next appearance under the anti-mercenary laws was not due until April, but local legal sources said a trial was unlikely until 2006 at the earliest.

In the meantime, he was fighting attempts by the Equatorial Guinea government to force him to answer questions about the coup plot - questions which his legal team argued would prejudice his case in South Africa. In November, he suffered a setback when the Cape high court overturned a previous ruling exempting him from having to answer the questions; an attempt to make a further appeal was due to be heard next month.

South African sources said last night that several previous attempts to negotiate a deal had come to nothing, and that the present bargain could still founder on political considerations. President Thabo Mbeki's administration places great importance in African unity, and saw the Equatorial Guinea affair as an example of "neo-colonialism" by elements in Britain, abetted by members of the former apartheid regime. As the son of Baroness Thatcher, Sir Mark has high symbolic significance, even though no one has claimed his involvement in the plot was more than peripheral.

While Sir Mark is entangled in the South African legal system, several other figures implicated in the plot are in Britain. According to documents filed in the London High Court by Equatorial Guinea, the coup was masterminded by Ely Calil, a Lebanese-born, British-based oil dealer. He has denied involvement.

Leaked documents have shown a payment to a Channel Islands company controlled by Simon Mann from a "J H Archer". However, Lord Archer, a friend of Mr Calil, has also denied knowledge of the coup plan.