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The Coetzee Plot: Guns, missile blueprints and the Ulster connection

THERE are some 150 South African agents operating in Britain, according to a former South African secret police colonel, John Horak. Mr Horak, who served for more than 30 years as a police spy while working as a journalist in South Africa, said that many of the agents were British private detectives sub-contracted to collect information on individuals and organisations.

Some, he said, had set up companies to break sanctions while others were employed in more sinister activities such as arms dealing and murder. He said that the new climate of reconciliation would not affect them and that the undercover elements of the South African security forces were continuing to operate as they had in the past.

The attempt to kill Mr Coetzee, however, is the first big South African operation in Europe which has come to light since President F W de Klerk came to power. Before that the case which caused the British government most anxiety was the attempt by South Africa to obtain the latest British anti-aircraft missile technology from the Belfast company, Shorts, in exchange for money and guns for loyalist paramilitaries.

The attempt dates back to 1985 when an Ulsterman working in South Africa invited representatives from the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Freedom Fighters and Ulster Resistance to Johannesburg and asked them to obtain missiles or missile blueprints. The UDA representative in fact worked for British intelligence but the security services, for whatever reason, allowed the deal to go ahead.

In particular the South Africans were interested in Starstreak, the latest Shorts anti- aircraft missile. Anti-aircraft defence was one of the biggest problems facing the South African Defence Force since it had neither the combat aircraft nor the ground defence system to combat Russian-built MiGs based in Angola. In 1987 representatives from the three paramilitary organisations bought weapons from South Africa and a South African diplomat based in France trained them in the use of rocket-propelled grenades. Some, but not all, the weapons were captured by British security forces.

The South Africans then offered pounds 1m for the blueprint of Starstreak. Instead the paramilitaries got parts and a model and offered it to the South African diplomat in a Paris hotel. The French police were also watching the men and arrested the three Ulstermen, a South African diplomat and an American arms dealer. Last October the three Irishmen were given suspended sentences and fined about pounds 10,000 between them. The South African diplomat claimed diplomatic immunity and was not charged. To express its disapproval Britain expelled three South African diplomats from the London embassy and France also ordered Pretoria to withdraw staff.

South African undercover operations against the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations in Africa and Europe grew throughout the 1980s. The London offices of the ANC and Swapo, the Namibian liberation movement, were bombed and ANC members and sympathisers were trailed and watched. Former Rhodesians and British ex-servicemen were prominent in the undercover business. One private detective company, sinisterly named Longreach, was set up by South Africa's master spy, Craig Williamson, and employed a former British marine major.

In 1987 the arrest of four men in London led to revelations about an attempt to kidnap and possibly murder senior members of the ANC. The men, two Norwegians, a Briton and a former Rhodesian, had been given instructions by a South African special forces soldier, Johann Neimoller, who met them in London. They were to kidnap leading members of the ANC in London. They were charged but they had created such a smokescreen of disinformation about their identities, connections and plans that the Director of Public Prosecutions was forced to drop the case. Many of the leads in the case led back to the South African embassy; the military attache left Britain shortly afterwards.

Baroness Thatcher, then Prime Minister, was infuriated by the attempt and ordered heavy Special Branch protection for senior members of the ANC.

The following year the ANC representative in Brussels narrowly missed assassination but in Paris South African agents were more successful and the ANC representative there, Dulcie September, was gunned down at the front door of her office. A former South African diplomat, Joseph Klue, was declared wanted in connection with the killing but had fled the country. Mr Klue had already been named in a court case in London in 1982 in connection with break-ins at the offices of the ANC and Swapo. Then he claimed diplomatic immunity and was not interviewed by police.

In 1984 the South African embassy in London helped four men jump bail and flee to South Africa. They were representatives of Armscor, the state arms company, who were charged with acting illegally and breaking the arms embargo against South Africa.

Asked recently if any action had been taken in South Africa against any South Africans for any of these activities, a senior South African diplomat said that since they had done nothing illegal under South African law nothing had been done to them.

'In fact,' he said, 'we see them as heroes.'