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Zimbabwe Plans to Charge Alleged Mercenaries

More than 60 men are accused of plotting to remove the president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, but many question the premise.

March 13, 2004|Robyn Dixon and Ken Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

JOHANNESBURG — Authorities in Zimbabwe announced Friday that more than 60 alleged mercenaries would be charged with plotting to topple the Equatorial Guinean government, but the case, with its echoes of Frederick Forsyth's "The Dogs of War," has raised more questions than answers.

It is a thriller with few good guys and plenty of murky intrigue. The official story, backed by the governments of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea, is that a group of mercenaries planned to remove the president of the tiny, oil-rich African nation and install an exiled opposition leader. They were foiled in a sting marked by the cooperation of security services in the three countries, according to officials of those countries.

But not all analysts are convinced. With so many self-interested parties -- many with questionable motives and reputations -- it is difficult to untangle the truth, they say.

Forsyth's "The Dogs of War" tells the story of a mercenary sent to overthrow a fictional African government, said to have been based on Equatorial Guinea.

The last week's events seem lifted from the book's pages. They also raise questions about the role of mercenaries in parts of Africa where oil and other resource riches have led to fierce power struggles but have rarely improved the lives of ordinary residents.

Equatorial Guinea was transformed from one of Africa's poorest countries to the continent's third-largest oil exporter -- much of it produced and sold by U.S. companies such as ExxonMobil -- after oil discoveries in the mid-1990s. The country has been led by the members of the same clan since independence in 1968. The incumbent President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power from his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, in 1979 and later had him executed. Both regimes have been accused of repression and human-rights abuses.

The story began Sunday when a private Boeing 727 flew from a remote South African airport to Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, and landed with cabin lights dimmed -- having failed to declare the presence of 64 men onboard. Zimbabwean state television aired footage of what it said was military material, including camouflage uniforms, sleeping bags, bolt cutters and compasses, but no guns.

Zimbabwe Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi said a former British special forces soldier and a retired member of South Africa's special forces were waiting on the ground to meet the plane. Zimbabwean officials said that the men on the plane, including 22 South Africans, hoped to pick up arms in Zimbabwe in order to launch a coup in Equatorial Guinea.

All were arrested and Zimbabwean authorities have threatened the death penalty if they are convicted.

An official from Logo Logistics, the company that operated the plane, said the men were being transported to the Democratic Republic of Congo to provide security for mines.

In Equatorial Guinea, authorities announced the arrest of 15 men, including seven South Africans, that they said made up an advance party for the coup. The arrests reportedly followed a tip-off from South African security officials.

The accused coup leader, South African Nick du Toit, confessed on state television that the men aimed to target key state installations and "spirit away" the president in order to install exiled opposition leader Severo Moto Nsa. Moto has denied involvement.

Both the former British soldier and Du Toit have been linked with private mercenary armies including the South African mercenary group Executive Outcomes, which ran military operations in Angola, Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone.

The problem in sorting out fact from fiction is that there are so many potential suspects in any coup attempt against Obiang.Obiang's ruling clan is split by disputes about the spoils of oil wealth and the question of who will succeed him. Despite denials from government officials, Obiang is reported to have prostate cancer, and rumors about his health have contributed to instability and rivalry. Some family members have expressed unhappiness about the president's desire to turn power over to a son, Teodorin, who is a government minister but spends much of his time in Paris and Los Angeles, where he owns an estate valued at more than $6 million.

Equatorial Guinea has charged that the arrested men were in the pay of unidentified "enemy powers" and multinational companies, whom Moto planned to reward with lucrative concessions.

In Zimbabwe, officials have alleged U.S. involvement. A State Department spokesman termed the charges "baseless and ludicrous."

Moto was implicated in a past coup attempt against Obiang and recently formed a "government in exile" in Spain, where he lives. But Frank Ruddy, a U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea under President Reagan and a friend of Moto's, said he had "been in touch with people with Moto's organization and they have told me, credibly, that he was not involved."

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