Thatcher 'was planning to flee' before being detained

Sir Mark Thatcher planned to flee South Africa before his arrest in connection with an alleged coup plot, police said yesterday.

The son of the former prime minister had already put his £2m home in Constantia in Cape Town on the market and enrolled his children at schools in the United States.

He had also booked flights to Dallas for his American wife Diane Burgdorf, the daughter of a millionaire Texan, and his two children. The couple retain a home in the prestigious Highland Park area of the Texan city.

A police spokesman, Sipho Ngwema, said: "The flights were booked for Monday and we believe Thatcher would have followed them. If you move your family and sell your property it follows that you would be leaving the country too," he said.

Sir Mark, 51, has insisted that he is innocent, claiming he knew nothing of a plot to topple the president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

South Africa's FBI-style Scorpions unit arrested him early on Wednesday morning after he failed to respond quickly enough to a police request for information upon returning from a trip to the United States. They said he had no intention of coming back to South Africa, where he has lived since 1995 when he left the US amid a number of investigations into his business dealings there.

While in Texas, he settled a civil racketeering lawsuit for an undisclosed sum. He was also investigated by the Internal Revenue Service over his role with a Dallas-based home security company that went bankrupt.

A Cape Town court put Sir Mark under virtual house arrest on Wednesday until he pays a £250,000 bank guarantee, required by 8 September. He was required to surrender his passports and report in daily to police pending another court appearance in November. He was charged with violating the country's Foreign Military Assistance Act designed to prevent South Africa being used as a base to plot the overthrow of other governments.

In a statement Sir Mark said: "I am innocent of all charges made against me. I have been, and am, co-operating fully with the authorities in order to resolve the matter. I have no involvement in an alleged coup in Equatorial Guinea and I reject all suggestions to the contrary."

Phillip Higgo, one of Sir Mark's legal team, denied he planned to leave the country. He said he had been aware of the investigation before returning to South Africa from a business trip to the United States.

"It goes without saying that had the accused constituted a flight risk the court would never have allowed the conditions it granted yesterday," he said.

South African police believe Sir Mark financed the purchase of a helicopter to assist in the coup plot in Equatorial Guinea. Eight-four people, mostly South Africans, are on trial simultaneously in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea in connection with the alleged plot.

The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was taking part in bilateral talks in Cape Town yesterday, insisted Sir Mark would receive the same treatment as any other Briton in trouble abroad. "Mark Thatcher is entitled to the same consular assistance as any other British citizen. He is also entitled, as every British citizen is, to that consular assistance being confidential," he said.

South Africa's foreign ministry meanwhile said it had not received a request for extradition from Equatorial Guinea, where he could face the death penalty if found guilty.

"The minister has said such a request has not been made and therefore there is nothing to deal with," spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa maintained.