Murky tale of a mercenary adventure

Murky tale of a mercenary adventure

Speculation grows as Equatorial Guinea claims plot to kill president was
foiled

David Pallister
Saturday March 13, 2004
The Guardian

The light was beginning to fade over Harare international airport last
Sunday when the 40-year-old white Boeing 727 with a US registration
number landed and taxied to the cargo area. With its cabin lights
dimmed, the pilot indicated he wanted to refuel before flying on. He
declared a crew of three and four cargo handlers. The Zimbabwean
authorities were suspicious, not least because their intelligence told
them that some interesting characters were to meet the flight. The
South Africans, too, appeared to know what was afoot. Within hours an
extraordinary story unfolded to mirror the intrigue of Frederick
Forsyth’s Dogs of War, in which a multinational company hires a bunch
of mercenaries to overthrow an African dictator – based on a 1973 coup
attempt in Equatorial Guinea.

This was not just a case of life imitating art; it seemed as if
history was repeating itself. Could the dogs of war that plagued the
African continent a generation ago be back? The Zimbabweans found 64
men on the plane – 20 South Africans, 18 Namibians, 23 Angolans, two
Congolese (from the Democratic Republic of Congo) and one Zimbabwean
with a South African passport – as well as “military material”. This
turned out to be camouflage uniforms, sleeping bags, compasses and
wire cutters.

Notorious

Some of the men were said to have been former members of the notorious
32 Commando of the South African defence force, a clandestine unit of
the apartheid regime who went on to join the equally controversial
private military company Executive Outcomes, which carried out
military operations for the governments of Sierra Leone and Angola in
the 1990s. It was formally disbanded in 1999, largely in response to
South Africa’s Foreign Military Assistance Act, which outlaws
mercenary activities.

As speculation about mercenary adventurers grew, Zimbabwe also
announced that it had arrested a former British SAS soldier, Simon
Mann, who had arrived at the airport to meet the plane. He had helped
to establish EO and its British associate, Sandline International –
the military company that helped Sierra Leone beat the rebel group
RUF.

Mr Mann, ministers said, had been in Harare in February with a South
African called Nick du Toit, apparently seeking to buy arms. The
pilots were identified as Niel Steyl, a South African commercial
pilot, and Hendrik Hamman, a Namibian. Both had in the past worked for
Executive Outcomes.

As the revelations accelerated, the plot spiralled into the
surreal. On Tuesday the information minister of Equatorial Guinea,
Agustin Nze Nfumu, dramatically announced that 15 men – from South
Africa, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Germany – had been arrested for
“plotting to kill the president”, Teodoro Obiang, and that their
ringleader had confessed.

He said one of the men had claimed the group was acting on behalf of
Ely Calil, a Lebanese businessman close to Severo Moto,
self-proclaimed president of a so-called Equatorial Guinean
government-in-exile in Spain, who had tried to mount a coup in 1997.

Mr Calil, who has British and Senegalese citizenship, lives in a
high-gated mansion in one of the more exclusive areas of Chelsea, west
London. He is an adviser to the Senegalese president and reportedly
carries a diplomatic passport.

Two years ago he was arrested in Paris and interrogated by the
magistrate investigating the Elf oil scandal about his role in
handling commissions for the late Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha.

Mr Calil declined to be interviewed by the Guardian. But he told the
London-based newsletter, Africa Confidential, that he had no
connection to the coup plot. However, he agreed that he was a friend
of the opposition leader and had given him “modest” financial support.

Mr Moto has also vigorously denied the allegation, accusing Mr Obiang
of being “an authentic cannibal”. He told Spanish radio: “Obiang wants
me to go back to Guinea and eat my testicles. That’s clear.”

As the allegations swirled, the company that owns the plane, Logo
Logistics, was desperately trying to put its side of the story. An
Englishman, Charles Burrow, a senior executive, told the Guardian that
the men had been travelling to the DRC to guard several mineral
concessions. They had stopped off in Harare to buy some “ancilliary
mining-related equipment”. Zimbabwe, he said,was “one of the cheapest
places on the planet”.

The plane’s flight plan did show that it was heading to Bujumbura in
Burundi on Congo’s eastern border. Mr Burrows explained that Logo had
been set up three years ago, registered in the British Virgin Islands
and administered from Guernsey. He himself was based in Dubai. He
conceded that Mr Mann was an executive of the company.

“My first priority is the safety of these men,” he said. As for the
coup allegations: “I haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re talking
about.”

Death penalty

Events then took a dramatic turn. On Wednesday evening, as the
Zimbabweans said the arrested men could face the death penalty and
accused the secret services of Britain, the US and Spain of being
behind the plot, Equatorial Guinea television broadcast an interview
with Mr Du Toit.

Translated from his English into Spanish, he said: “It wasn’t a
question of taking the life of the head of state but of spiriting him
away, taking him to Spain and forcing him into exile and then of
immediately installing the government-in-exile of Severo Moto. The
group was supposed to start by identifying strategic targets such as
the presidency, the military barracks, police posts and the residences
of government members.

“Then it was supposed to have vehicles at Malabo airport to transport
other mercenaries who were due to arrive from South Africa. But at the
last minute I got a call to say that the other group of mercenaries
had been arrested in South Africa as they were preparing to leave the
country.”

Contacted again by the Guardian, Mr Burrows acknowledged that Mr Du
Toit worked for Logo. “We have five people in the country working on
three contracts for the government,” he said. He also acknowledged
that he knew Mr Calil, but denied having any commercial relationship
with him.

Back in Harare the allegations were becoming firmer. Zimbabwe’s home
affairs minister, Kembo Mohadi, told a news conference that the heads
of the police and army in Equatorial Guinea had gone along with the
plot against the government. “The western intelligence services
persuaded Equatorial Guinea’s service chiefs not to put up any
resistance, but to cooperate with the coup plotters,” he said.

He claimed that the leader of the group, Mr Mann, had allegedly been
promised cash payment of £1m and oil mining rights and that Mr Moto
had hired them. And in an aside which will delight 007 fans, he said
one of the conspirators who had carried out surveillance in the Guinea
capital of Malabo was called “Bonds”.

Then came the bombshell. Mr Mohadi claimed that, in what appears to
have been a Zimbabwean sting, Colonel Tshinga Dube, director of
Zimbabwe Defence Industries, had accepted $180,000 (£100,000) from
Mr Mann for a consignment of AK-47s, mortars and 30,000 rounds of
ammunition. A more murky interpretation, however, was provided by the
Afrikaans daily, Beeld, which reported that Col Dube had been
“enraged” that the aircraft was impounded and the transaction
scuttled.

Whatever the truth of that, it now seems clear that both South African
and Zimbabwean intelligence had wind of a suspicious operation, which
explains why President Obiang praised Thabo Mkbeki in his television
address.

“We spoke with the South African president, who warned us that a group
of mercenaries was heading towards Equatorial Guinea,” he said.

Yesterday Mr Mohadi said the 67 men would be charged with
destabilising a sovereign state.

Indiscreet

The Guardian understands that some of the alleged plotters had been
remarkably indiscreet about their plans. Rumours of a coup have been
rife in Malabo for weeks, according to several sources familiar with
the territory. So the questions remain: Why Equatorial Guinea? Why
now? And in whose interests?

The answers can be summed up in one word: oil. Until 1995 Equatorial
Guinea, a former Spanish colony, was an impoverished backwater with a
population of less than half a million. After independence in 1968, it
was ruled by Mr Obiang’s uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, who acquired
as vicious a reputation as any of the other murderous African
dictators.

In 1975, over Christmas, he ordered his militia to kill 150 political
prisoners in Malabo stadium as loudspeakers played Those Were the
Days, My Friend. During his reign of terror a third of the population
fled.

Mr Obiang seized power from his uncle in 1979 and, although he
introduced a consitutional democracy, elections have been widely
regarded as fraudulent and opponents often end up in jail.

The discovery of oil in the mid-1990s transformed the country’s
finances, and provided the president and his family with funds to
acquire multimillion dollar properties in the US. With American oil
companies in the lead, production last year at 350,000 barrels a day
made Equatorial Guinea the third largest producer in sub-Saharan
Africa.

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