Mystery over ‘mercenary’ plane held in Harare

March 09, 2004

Mystery over ‘mercenary’ plane held in Harare

Zimbabwe military officials hold up wire cutters on the seized cargo plane

Mystery and confusion surrounded a US cargo plane seized at Harare airport
on suspicion of carrying mercenaries after Equatorial Guinea said today that
it had arrested a 15-man advance party linked to the impounded aircraft.

The ageing Boeing 727-100, which is alleged by Zimbabwe to have been
carrying 64 mercenaries of various nationalities, including South Africans,
took off from Polokwane airport in Limpopo Province yesterday, before being
held by Harare over a false declaration concerning its cargo.

Aviation authorities are still trying to establish the aircraft’s
destination. It has been variously reported to have been heading for
Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the oil rich West African
nation of Equatorial Guinea.

But the Government of Equitorial Guinea, a tiny former Spanish colony wedged
between Gabon and Cameroon, said that it had arrested 15 mercenaries
suspected of plotting a coup.

“Some 15 mercenaries have been arrested here, connected with that plane in
Zimbabwe. They were the advance party of that group,” said Agustn Nse Nfumu,
the Information Minister.

The 15 included a group of black and white South Africans, along with
nationals from Germany, Kazakhstan and Armenia, Mr Nfumu added.

Beeld, the Afrikaans-language daily, also reported South African
intelligence sources confirming that the aircraft was on its way to
Equatorial Guinea, sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer.

Rumours of an impending coup were rife in the country amid growing tensions
among President Mbasogo’s family, whose members hold most of the top jobs in
the country.

Witnesses who saw the aircraft being loaded before it left South Africa said
it contained equipment such as hammers, bolt-cutters and shovels.

“It looked more like people going on a mining expedition,” one witness said.

“It’s certainly not the type of stuff I would like to start a war with,” he

One unconfirmed report claimed that the aircraft was on its way to
Bujumbura, packed with de-mining equipment, as part of an international
effort to clear minefields in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Zimbabwean authorities announced yesterday that they had impounded the
aircraft “after the owners had made a false declaration of its cargo and

Officials said that the flight was carrying “military materials,” and that
its passengers were suspected mercenaries.

Zimbabwean state television broadcast footage of the cargo, including a
rubber dinghy, sleeping bags, satellite phones, knives, bolt cutters,
hammers, green camouflage uniforms, and mace spray.

But no firearms, ammunition or explosives could be seen in the news
bulletins, which described the equipment as being “used by commandon
specialised missions”.

The aircraft and its passengers, most of them white, were taken to a nearby
military airfield for questioning.

Air Force and army bomb disposal experts are still examining the cargo “to
determine whether there is possible arms of war”.

No formal charges have yet been laid against any of the passengers.

The Zimbabwean authorities said that the suspected mercenaries would be
shown to the media once its investigations were completed.

“We are going to parade these men but I cannot say when exactly,” one
official said.

“That would depend on how the investigations are going,” he added.

The aircraft’s registration number, N4610, is assigned to Dodson Aviation
Inc, based in Ottawa, Kansas. But Robert Dodson, the company director, said
that it had sold the aircraft a week ago to Logo Logistics, a South African

The South African authorities have so far failed to trace the whereabouts of
the new owners.

Jerry Ndou, the South African High Commissioner to Harare, is scheduled to
meet Zimbabwean officials to investigate claims that some of the alleged
mercenaries were South Africans.

Under South Africa’s 1998 Foreign Military Assistance Act, it is illegal for
South African nationals to offer military services to foreign countries
without the prior approval of Pretoria. The offence is punishable by ten
years in jail and a one million rand (£83,000) fine.