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Mark Thatcher arrested over 'coup plot'

Pa News
Wednesday 25 August 2004 00:00 BST

Sir Mark Thatcher was arrested today over claims that he was involved in a plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea.

Sir Mark Thatcher was charged today with violating South Africa's anti-mercenary law in connection with an alleged plot to topple the government of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

The son of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was brought before a magistrates' court in Cape Town and bail was set at two million rands (£175,000).

The charge followed his arrest early this morning at his home in the city.

The 51-year-old businessman was placed under house arrest and has until September 8 to post his bail.

In a bizarre development his court appearance was delayed when he was robbed in a crowded holding cell.

His shoes, jacket and mobile phone were taken, according to a court official who saw the attack.

He did not appear to have been injured and police were trying to recover the items, the official said.

Sir Mark, who inherited the baronetcy of his late father Sir Denis last year, could receive up to 15 years' imprisonment if convicted, according to a police source.

Equatorial Guinea's justice minister, Ruben Mangue, played down suggestions that the west African country may seek to extradite him.

He said on BBC Radio 4's The World at One programme: "Let's first give an opportunity to the South African authorities and the South African legal system to handle the situation."

Sir Mark's lawyer, Peter Hodes, said he was arrested on suspicion of providing financing for a helicopter linked to the alleged coup plot.

"He will plead not guilty," he said.

The arrest came as trials take place in Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe over the alleged plot, foiled in March, to overthrow the regime of President Teodoro Obiang.

It is claimed that Briton Simon Mann, an Old Etonian turned African mercenary, was the ringleader.

He was held in Zimbabwe, allegedly with a plane full of mercenaries on their way to overthrow the Equatorial Guinea government.

The alleged plotters were said to be hoping to exploit the country's massive oil reserves by installing their own leader, Severo Moto, currently in exile in Spain.

Mann is one of 70 defendants held in Zimbabwe while another 19 people are on trial in the Equatorial Guinea capital Malabo.

These include South African arms dealer Nick du Toit, another alleged key figure, who told the court today he met Sir Mark in the months before the alleged plot was foiled.

Du Toit, who faces the death penalty for his alleged role, said Sir Mark was interested only in purchasing military hardware that was not involved in the alleged coup plot.

He was interested only in buying military helicopters for a mining deal with Sudan, he said.

Du Toit's co-defendants, if convicted, face prison sentences of up to 86 years.

The 19 defendants in Malabo are charged with attempting to assassinate a head of state, illegal possession of arms and explosives, terrorism, treason and endangering the public.

Verdicts in their cases are expected on Saturday.

Equatorial Guinea, pumping 350,000 barrels of oil a day, has become Africa's third-largest oil producer since offshore development began in the mid-1990s.

The country has accused Sir Mark, British and South African oil broker Eli Calil and other foreign financiers of funding the alleged coup attempt - claims denied by lawyers for Sir Mark and Mr Calil.

President Obiang has ruled the isolated nation with an iron fist since executing the former dictator - his uncle - in 1979.

Police in South Africa raided Sir Mark's home in the upmarket suburb of Constantia shortly after 7am local time, armed with search warrants. He was wearing pyjamas when they arrived.

Police spokesman Sipho Ngwema said: "We have evidence, credible evidence, and information that he was involved in the attempted coup.

"We refuse that South Africa be a springboard for coups in Africa and elsewhere."

Sir Mark was in custody at his home while investigators searched his records and computers for evidence.

"We believe Mr Thatcher assisted in finance and logistics," said Mr Ngwema, who declined to elaborate.

A spokeswoman for Baroness Thatcher said there was no comment on the situation.

The former Prime Minister is on holiday in America and has not yet been contacted. She is due to return to Britain on Friday.

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