Zimbabwe set to charge 60 'mercenaries'

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The Independent Online

The suspected mercenaries, among them a former SAS officer, who were seized while allegedly on their way to carry out a coup against the Government of Equatorial Guinea, could appear in court as early as today.

Bharat Patel, Zimbabwe's acting Attorney General, said "the relevant law enforcement agencies" were drawing up charges and the men would appear in court today or Monday. Mr Patel told state radio yesterday: "They are not going to appear in court today, as far as I'm aware. The likelihood is that they'll appear in court tomorrow, if not tomorrow then soon thereafter."

The authorities have said the men could face the death penalty, but Mr Patel said charges against the group were likely to focus on a contravention of the Civil Aviation Act; neither this nor the other possible charges he mentioned are capital offences. While President Robert Mugabe's draconian security laws apply only to acts committed against Zimbabwe, sources told The Independent that the authorities were working to bring the severest charges possible.

What the men were doing remains unclear. Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea say the men were part of a coup attempt on the oil-rich West African nation, which has been led by the same dictator since 1979. The authorities there have arrested 15 men who they claim were the coup effort's advance party.

Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe, some 2,000 miles apart, have put their security forces on high alert since Zimbabwe detained the Boeing 727 carrying the men and what officials described as "military material" on Sunday.

The authorities in Harare have also arrested a former SAS officer, Simon Mann, who was allegedly waiting for the mercenaries and had been organising weapons for their operation. Kembo Mohadi, Zimbabwe's Home Affairs minister, said that Mr Mann was waiting on the airport tarmac with Tshinga Dube, managing director of the Zimbabwe Defence Industries, when the aircraft landed. This was denied by Mr Dube, who has not been arrested. He says he was in South Africa at the time.

The aeroplane was being operated by Logo Logistics Ltd, a company believed to be based in the Channel Islands. Charles Burrows, a senior executive with the firm, has told reporters the plane was on its way to the Democratic Republic of Congo to fulfil a contract to supply armed guards to protect mines. He told the South Africa Press Agency: "It is all a dreadful misunderstanding. These things happen very often for reasons that seem very plausible to the authorities at the time.

"We are very much in touch with the South African Government. I can't praise them too highly. They are dealing with the matter with energy and dispatch. I'm very hopeful the matter will be dealt with very rapidly and have every confidence we'll have the guys back at their homes soon."

The plane had previously been owned by Dodson International, a company based in Kansas, which said it sold the jet to Logo Logistics last month. Robert Dodson, the firm's director, told the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper: "It's unbelievable. We basically sold the aeroplane, and the rest of it is just what we're finding out in the news."

Reports from South Africa say the alleged mercenaries boarded the plane from a hangar at Pretoria's Wonderboom airport, which is owned by a subsidiary of Dodson, Dodson International Parts SA Ltd.

Earlier this week Equatorial Guinea's state television broadcast an interview with Nick du Toit, who was said to be the leader of the group plotting to overthrow the Government. Mr du Toit said that his group was seeking to replace President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo with an exiled politician, Severo Moto, who heads a government-in-exile in Spain.

Mr du Toit is a former soldier with the South African Defence Force and also worked for Mr Mann's mercenary company, Executive Outcomes, which folded in 1999. Equatorial Guinea said Mr du Toit had admitted in a second interview that his men were being funded by the United States Government and multinational companies.