Mercenaries mystery deepens as African state arrests 15 men

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The mystery about 64 alleged mercenaries detained in Zimbabwe deepened yesterday with Equatorial Guinea claiming it had arrested a 15-strong advance party from the same group.

The mystery about 64 alleged mercenaries detained in Zimbabwe deepened yesterday with Equatorial Guinea claiming it had arrested a 15-strong advance party from the same group.

Equatorial Guinea, an impoverished and unstable state wedged in central Africa believed the men seized at Harare International Airport, after arriving in a South Africa-owned cargo plane, were part of a plot to topple its government.

At the same time, Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean President, fearing what his officials described as a "US and British inspired plot to topple him", put his army on high alert and recalled soldiers on leave.

The operator of the plane said the men had been bound for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to work as security guards on mines, and the aircraft had stopped in Zimbabwe to pick up mining equipment. Charles Burrows, a senior executive of Logo Logistics, told Reuters that most of the people on board were South African and had military experience, but were on contract to four mining companies in Congo. He refuted claims by Kembo Mohadi, Zimbabwe's Home Affairs Minister, that the plane carried "military material".

Zimbabwean state television footage of the plane's cargo showed sleeping bags, satellite phones, knives, bolt cutters and green camouflage uniforms, but no firearms. But Mr Burrows, whose company is registered in the British Channel Islands, said: "What had been described as 'military equipment' in some earlier reports now has been shown to be items such as boots, tools, pipe-bending and other equipment, wire-cutting and connecting tools, and similar. All are items normally sourced in South Africa, as they are difficult and expensive to obtain elsewhere in southern Africa."

Zimbabwean television maintained last night that the plane had carried military equipment. It said the army had been put on high alert because of a clear threat to Mugabe from "the mercenaries".

Some of the arrested menare said to have told Zimbabwean police that they had been hired to carry out "de-mining" work in the DRC by a South African contractor. But their version was contradicted by their plane's flight plan, which showed that it was destined for Bujumbura in Burundi.

Other theories emerging yesterday were that the plane could have been destined to Ivory Coast, the Sudan, Liberia or even Iraq. But the one theory gaining most credibility was that it was bound for Equatorial Guinea. This was backed by South African sources, who believed the plane was bound for the country to overthrow its government.

The South African government said, if the men in Zimbabwe turned out to be dogs of war, South Africa would abandon them to Mugabe justice. Ronnie Mamoepa, the Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, said yesterday that if the people in Zimbabwean custody were involved in mercenary activities, the government would not seek their extradition, "since we do not have such an extradition treaty involving such issues with any country elsewhere in the world". He said: "Consequently, depending on the outcome of the investigations, they will then have to stand trial where they are alleged to have committed the offences."

South African official sources said that Logo Logistics acquired a fishing concession in Equatorial Guinea and bought or hired fishing trawlers late last year. But one source said: "Those guys had never caught a fish in their lives. They were all ex-Special Forces." The sources believed the trawlers were to be used to reconnoitre and then to transport mercenaries to oust the government of unpopular President Obiang Nguema in a coup.

Though part of Equatorial Guinea is on the African mainland, Malabo, its capital, is on the island of Bioko, and it appears a sea-borne coup was planned, though it is not clear from what staging point.

One source said the reason the aircraft had flown to Harare was to pick up the leader and some members of the team.

The suspected mercenaries are believed to have been separated and held at different locations around Harare after being split into different groups.

They were being "interviewed" by interrogators. There has been concern the men could be tortured in an attempt to extract information.