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Zimbabwe: West aided 'mercenaries'
Updated: 2004-03-11 10:14

Zimbabwe threatened on Wednesday to execute some 60 suspected mercenaries detained this week and accused U.S., British and Spanish spy agencies of involvement in a plot to topple Equatorial Guinea's government.

Equatorial Guinea, which has arrested what it called an advance party of 15 mercenaries, said "enemy powers" and multinational companies had been plotting against the small oil-producing central African state.

The U.S.-registered 727 sits at a Zimbabwean military airfield. [AP]

The two countries, some 2,000 miles apart, have put their security forces on high alert since Zimbabwe seized a Boeing 727 carrying about 60 men, most of them South Africans, Angolans and Namibians, both white and black, on Sunday.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington knew nothing about the plane, Spain planned to make a formal complaint to Zimbabwe, and associates of the men said they were innocent mine guards swept up in a bizarre misunderstanding.

"(The suspected mercenaries) are going to face the severest punishment available in our statutes, including capital punishment. We will give them all the rights they are entitled to," Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge told reporters.

"They were aided by the British secret service, that is MI6, (the) American Central Intelligence Agency and the Spanish secret service," Zimbabwe's Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi told a news conference.

Mohadi, whose country has been bitterly at odds in recent years with Washington and former European colonial powers, said Equatorial Guinea's police and army heads had gone along with the plot against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

In Washington, Powell told lawmakers: "I saw the same reports you did about this plane that suddenly showed up and everybody, of course, (said) it must be the Americans doing something. We know nothing about the plane."


Zimbabwean authorities show what they say they found on the jet. [AP]
Spain denied involvement in any plot in the former Spanish colony and a diplomatic source said the Spanish ambassador in Harare would "present a formal complaint to the Zimbabwean government" on Thursday over its allegation.

Britain stuck to its policy of never commenting on the activities of its security services.

Zimbabwe state television showed a cargo of what it called "military material" aboard the seized plane.

The gear included camouflage uniforms, sleeping bags, compasses and wire cutters but no guns.

Mohadi said the men expected to pick up arms and ammunition from state-owned Zimbabwe Defense Industries, but did not elaborate.

Officials said the suspected mercenaries had traveled from South Africa and the tiny Atlantic archipelago of Sao Tome and Principe, a former Portuguese colony.

On Tuesday, Obiang, who seized power from his uncle in 1979, said foreign countries and multinational companies had conspired to replace him with an exiled politician living in Spain.

Severo Moto, who heads what he calls a government-in-exile in Madrid, said on Wednesday he was not involved in any plot but Obiang had to go, by force if necessary.

"The people have the legitimacy to get rid of the tyrant," Moto told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Moto was exiled to Spain for plotting a coup in his homeland, where Frederick Forsyth wrote a classic 1970s tale of mercenary skullduggery, "The Dogs of War."

Obiang thanked South Africa and Angola for warning him of a plot but did not identify any of the countries or companies allegedly behind it.

Equatorial Guinea has been rounding up African foreigners since Saturday amid tensions within Obiang's clan, dominant in a nation of just half a million.

The seized plane's operator, based in Britain's Channel Islands, said it had been flying security men from South Africa to guard mines in Democratic Republic of Congo. It declined to name the customers it was acting for.

Zimbabwe said it had also arrested a man identified as Simon Mann, a former member of Britain's Special Air Service, and two others who had been at Harare airport to meet the Boeing 727.

Obiang has been wooed by Western oil firms. Last year his country pumped 350,000 barrels per day, ranking third in sub-Saharan Africa behind Nigeria and Angola.

The oil wealth has been unevenly shared, critics say. Human rights groups accuse Obiang of jailing and torturing opponents.

Officials said Justice Minister Ruben Maye Nsue Mangue and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Jose Esono had left to visit South Africa, Angola and Zimbabwe, but gave no details.

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