Mercenaries aimed to topple oil-rich despot

The inside story of the ties that bind President Obiang and powerful American interests
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The tale of the 67 men of assorted nationalities now in a Zimbabwe jail accused of being mercenaries continued to unfurl yesterday like the plot of a lurid airport novel.

A bit too much like fiction, in fact, involving as it does a cast that includes the despotic leader of a little-known West African state, the Eton-educated son of an English cricket captain, fake passports, and a shadowy company registered in the Channel Islands that is linked to SAS old boys. All this, plus talk of CIA, MI6 and Spanish secret service activity, and a plane now impounded at Harare airport that contained equipment more suited to burglary than seizures of power.

Officially, it was announced yesterday that the men will be formally charged on Monday. Unofficially, The Independent on Sunday has been told by security sources that the men were intending to mount a coup in Equatorial Guinea and were in Zimbabwe to buy the arms that would help accomplish that. But then on Tuesday, tipped off by South African intelligence that the team led by Briton Simon Mann was landing to pick up arms bought from Zimbabwe Defence Industries, the Harare authorities arrested them.

But if who paid whom for what services has not yet been revealed, the intended target is not in doubt: President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, leader of a country whose lack of renown belies its strategic significance. And for "strategic" read oil. Not for nothing is this land known in US government circles as the "Kuwait of the Gulf of Guinea". Not without reason has President Bush welcomed President Obiang, a confirmed if not convicted corrupt despot, to the White House. He may be a despot, but as presider over an oil-rich state, he is their despot.

The sight and smell of oil is everywhere palpable in the port of Malabo. From here you can see the flames shooting into the night sky from the offshore oilrigs. Every day tens of thousands of barrels are extracted from huge crude oil reserves underneath the seabed off Equatorial Guinea.It is one of the oil-rich sub-Saharan countries that now supplies 15 per cent of American oil. Experts predict that the amount of oil the US receives from the prolific fields of Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Angola will double in the next five years. Hence the succour that American companies - and, since 9/11, the American government - have given to Obiang. Vice President Dick Cheney has said: "Along with Latin America, West Africa is expected to be one of the fastest-growing sources of oil and gas for the American market."

Marathon Oil, Chevron Texaco and ExxonMobil control most of the country's oil production with an investment of about $5bn (£2.8m). All this was negotiated by Mr Obiang, 63, who has run the continent's only Spanish-speaking country for a quarter of a century. His predecessor was the dictator Francisco Macias Nguema - his uncle - who, over Christmas 1975, called Malabo's population to the football stadium and had 150 political opponents killed by his troops to the accompaniment of "Those Were the Days, My Friend". Within a short time, two out of three of the elected assembly had disappeared and a third of the population was either dead or in exile.

In 1979, Teodoro Obiang, then governor of Bioko province, overthrew his uncle and had him tried and executed. President Obiang has always been noted for his corruption, and the sudden rise of oil revenues has hardly changed that. Little of the wealth seems to have trickled down to his people, whose average income is a little over $2 a day. Most of the revenues stick in the pockets of Obiang family. One son runs the country's oil interests, another the forestry interests (selling off timber from ancient rainforests). A brother runs the army, another the security service, while most of the generals come from President Obiang's village.

Lest the inequalities inspire the 450,000 population - with or without mercenary help - to rise up, the Obiang family have been buying into the real estate market in the US, spending millions of dollars on properties in Washington and Los Angeles.

President Obiang is also protected by a guard of some 350 Moroccan soldiers. He runs a ruthless secret police and has attracted the attention of human rights campaigners. Amnesty International has accused him of the murder, torture and locking up dissidents.

The US State Department has, in the past, condemned his human rights record. But the US is quick to respond to changing circumstances. When President Obiang visited Washington in spring 2001, the highest-ranking official prepared to meet him was an assistant secretary of agricul- ture. But his status changed dramatically after 9/11. When he visited the US as it marked the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the President was one of 10 African leaders to meet George Bush.

Whoever else wanted President Obiang removed - and leader-in-exile Severo Moto is a prime candidate; last week he told Spanish radio that the President was "an authentic cannibal" who wanted "to eat my testicles" - it is unlikely to have been the Americans.

How 'Dogs of War' author turned coup into bestseller

Attempted coups in Equatorial Guinea have not always been successful for the politically ambitious, but they certainly have been for thriller-writers. It was one such in 1972, for instance, that produced Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs of War, not least - according to some - because Forsyth himself was behind the attempt to depose the current President's uncle.

As a reporter, Forsyth had covered the bloody Biafran War of the late 1960s. He became a convert to the Biafran cause, and, according to one newspaper, plotted to overthrow Equatorial Guinea's dictator to set up a Biafran base to continue their fight.

In 1978, the diary of East End hard man and mercenary Alan Murphy, who took part in the coup plot, was obtained by the Sunday Times. It identified Forsyth as being present at meetings in Hamburg where guns were obtained for the coup. The paper contacted some of the mercenaries involved. It learned that Forsyth financed a former Scottish bank clerk called Alexander Ramsey Gay, who fought as a mercenary in the Congo and then Biafra, where he commanded a brigade of 3,000 men. In 1972, Mr Gay reconnoitred the island segment of Equatorial Guinea for a coup attempt. He reckoned a small number of soldiers could overthrow the government.

As Forsyth recounted it in The Dogs of War, the planning was complex, meticulous and brilliant. The reality fell a long way short, but it did have a certain Forsythian style. Mr Gay had two false passports in the names of Greaves and Mair obtained by using the identities of dead people, a method used in Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal.

Mr Gay hired European mercenaries and charted a fishing boat called the Albatross in Fuengirola, Spain. But things started to go wrong. The mercenaries stood out in the Spanish port, and an official who had been bribed refused to issue a certificate that would have allowed Mr Gay to move the arms from Hamburg to Spain. While the boat sailed for Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Mr Gay went to Hamburg to sort out the weapons. But back in the Canaries, the boat was impounded, the crew arrested and the coup attempt aborted.

At the time, Forsyth refused to comment on the claims. Yesterday he admitted that he was at the Hamburg meetings but said he was not involved in a coup. "A coup may or may not have been planned, I don't know, but I was not involved. I attended the meetings in Hamburg as part of my research for The Dogs of War. I had lots of knowledge about Africa from my time in Biafra but I didn't know how the weapons side would work. I persuaded some people to let me attend these meetings, but I promised not to talk and that's why I did not comment to the Sunday Times.

"Alan Murphy had not realised that I had been at the Hamburg meetings until years later, when he saw my picture on a book cover. He put this in his diary. When the Sunday Times read it they made two plus two equal 73."

Whatever the truth, the exercise proved lucrative. Dogs of War was published in 1974, applauded for its vérité, and became a bestseller.