The Coetzee Plot: Fourth murder attempt in three years: Richard Dowden describes the life of a killer who has been on the run since exposing colleagues

The attempted murder of Dirk Coetzee, the former South African security policeman and self-confessed killer, was the fourth time his former colleagues had tried to kill him since he fled from South Africa three years ago.

He sought asylum in Britain in March 1991 and has moved house several times, never staying in the same home for more than three months and living in constant fear.

Mr Coetzee worked for five years as a security policeman with the Civil Co-operation Bureau, the secret counter-insurgency agency set up by South African Military Intelligence. In 1989 he turned on his former employers and fled to Zambia where he told all he knew in a series of gruesome revelations about his own role in poisonings and wayside murders carried out by undercover South African security agents.

He was a key witness in the Harms Judicial Commission, the tribunal set up by Pretoria to look into political assassinations, and he named several senior South African policemen as the instigators of murder.

His former colleagues' motive to kill him is not just revenge or breaking the code of a mafia brotherhood which allows no one to speak out and live. He says that the reason his former colleagues want him dead is because he joined the African National Congress and said he intended to return to South Africa and investigate the death squads. He says that subsequent revelations would lead right to the top of the police and army and prove the complicity of politicans, including President F W de Klerk.

Although there was a warrant out for his arrest for murder and a senior policeman had said in public he would have to return to defend his allegations, Pretoria suddenly announced that he was free to return and would not be prosecuted. That made him suspicious.

In October 1991, he was living in Kilburn when he was tipped off that Lt Col Eugene de Kock, a senior security policeman, was in London to set up a plan to kill him. He moved immediately to 13 Hinde Street, just off Oxford Street. He had new panels made for the front door and installed extra security on the flat. Because he was a former security policeman, there was not much Scotland Yard could teach him about looking after himself.

In April he took his two teenage children to East Sussex coast and was staying in a chalet at Camber on April 16 when he was visited by Detective Constable Robert Richards of specialist operations at Scotland Yard and Ken Baker of the Sussex Police Special Branch. They had been searching for him for days following the tip-off.

'They confirmed that there was an attempt on my life and gave me a radio controlled panic button,' said Mr Coetzee. The policemen asked him who would know that he was in Camber, and the following day took Mr Coetzee and his two children to Bognor Regis, where they were checked into a hotel under false names and given police protection.

The police did not give Mr Coetzee details of their inquiries, but he gathered that the flat at Hinde Street had been staked out by South African agents and that the assassination had been sub- contracted to a Northern Irish paramilitary group. After about 10 days he and his two children returned to London and to yet another secret home.

Mr Coetzee believes that there were two previous attempts on his life by South African agents, both when he was living near the Edgware Road. On one occasion two men broke into the flat next to his but stole nothing and the following day an intruder was disturbed by his son.

When he lived in Zambia after he had fled from South Africa, he received from Johannesburg a parcel containing a bomb disguised as a personal stereo. He returned it to the sender but the address given was that of a South African lawyer, Bheki Mhlangeni; when he received the package he opened it, the bomb exploded and killed him.