Colonel Bob Denard's claim of a close relationship with the French military establishment was confirmed when many former army chiefs and politicians sent messages of support during the trial and acknowledged him as one of their own.
Only hours aftar he was released from jail on Monday evening, the 'Dog of War' who proudly called himself 'the most terrible' of the French 'terrors' (les affreux) in the civil war in the Belgian Congo, said: 'I was not so much a mercenary, but France's pirate.'
Denard, 64, had previously been sentenced in absentia to five years for 'criminal association' relating to a failed coup attempt in Benin in 1977 in which eight people died. The sentence was suspended after a retrial following his voluntary return from exile.
'I am very surprised, surprised and delighted, that I am free,' he said. 'My lawyer's strategy was to paint me as France's corsair, but that depended on receiving back-up from important people within the establishment. I feel honoured and rehabilitated by their support.'
On 1 February, Denard returned to his native France from self-imposed exile in South Africa. He had lived there since Pretoria's forces airlifted him out of the Comoros Islands in December 1989, after the mysterious death of President Ahmed Abdallah. Denard had helped Abdallah to power 10 years before and had been his protector ever since. He is still being investigated over the death of the president.
As Denard stepped off the plane in Paris he was arrested, taken to prison and denied bail, on the grounds that he was a 'threat to the national and international peace'. Within weeks, however, glowing testimonials started flooding into the offices of his lawyer, Maitre Soulez-Lariviere, a friend of President Francois Mitterrand's.
Jacques Foccart, De Gaulle's 'Mr Africa' and closest adviser, sent a letter to the presiding judge, which declared he believed Denard's 'only ambition was to serve his country'. The former commander-in-chief of the French army, General Janou Lacaze, said he could not imagine that the Benin coup 'took place without the backing of the French authorities'.
On Tuesday, Denard said he felt free, for the first time, to talk about his relationship with the French secret service. 'In 1961, I went to Katanga as a freelance soldier. There I had my first contact with the (secret service) . . . My group was infiltrated by agents of the French government. But from 1968, I always had direct personal contact with the officer-in-charge, Colonel Maurice Robert.'
'Every time I had an operation which was within the political framework, I had first to get the green light from the French services,' he said. 'Well, sometimes it was more like an amber light, but I did never - nor ever would - act against France.
'They never paid me a cent, but I got to keep my autonomy. In the case of very important operations, like Benin, the orders would come directly from Journiac (head of Africa affairs under Valery Giscard d'Estaing), who would telephone to organise a discreet rendezvous. I never went to his office (in the Elysee), nor was anything put into writing.'
In the course of his career, which spanned the African continent, Denard said he also worked with other Western secret services. 'In Angola I had close contact with the CIA, and in the Yemen with MI6. I knew Colonel David Stirling (founder of the SAS) and Billy McLean (British agent in Albania who later became an MP) well. In Chad and the Comoros, of course, I worked with South African military intelligence.
'I had no further contact with the French after the Socialists came into power in 1981. But before that, I always consulted them.'
Denard was contacted by exiled members of the Benin opposition at the end of 1976 and given an advance payment of dollars 475,000 ( pounds 315,000) to overthrow the Marxist government of Major Mathieu Kerekou in the former French colony of Dahomey. Denard hired 60 mercenaries, and, together with 30 black mercenaries, they flew into Cotonou airport in January 1977.
Six Beninois and two mercenaries were killed in a firefight before Denard ordered his men to retreat. But they left behind detailed plans of the operation, as well as the names and bank account numbers of all the mercenaries. A Guinean mercenary, Ba Alpha Umaru, had also been forgotten on top of the control tower.
Through his interrogation and the evidence provided by the abandoned documents, a United Nations investigating mission was able to identify all the mercenaries involved. The families of three of the Beninois who had died in the coup attempt began civil cases against Denard and two of his men in Paris. However, 16 years later, Denard walked out of the courtroom with a smile on his face. 'France would have been pleased had Benin been a success,' he said.
Denard's immediate plans involve spending time with his seven 'wives' and eight children, visiting his childhood home near Bordeaux and keeping a low profile. He still stands accused of conspiracy to murder and aggravated theft in connection with the death of President Abdallah, but was released last Saturday while the instructing judge decides whether there is enough evidence to bring the case to court.
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