Where was flight N4610 heading?

Independent Online, South Africa
March 10 2004

Where was flight N4610 heading?

They were 64 “heavily built men”, mostly white. No, they were all
black. No, only 40 of them were black.

The plane left South Africa illegally from Wonderboom airport,
strayed into Zimbabwe airspace and was ordered down. No, the plane
left the country legally, having filed a flight plan to Harare and
then on to Burundi. No, the plane was headed for the Democratic
Republic of Congo (DRC).

The men on board were suspected of being mercenaries hired to
overthrow Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. No, they were on their
way to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. No, they were
going to the eastern DRC to carry out security duties.

These are just some of the stories surrounding the flight of N4610, a
Boeing 727-100 cargo plane that has been impounded in Harare.

‘Those guys have never caught a fish in their lives’
And 64 – though some reports say there are 67 – of those who were
aboard, whether they were white, black or a mixture, and whether they
were mercenaries or honest men, are in Harare cells facing intense

Not even Frederick Forsyth thought of so many twists and riddles in
his Dogs of War, probably the best-known novel about mercenaries.

The book was based on Forsyth’s personal adventures – he was involved
in an unsuccessful scheme to overthrow the head of state of
Equatorial Guinea in 1972.

But even the Dogs of War cannot rival this bizarre tale of confusion.

Some sources say the drama began in November 2003 or December when
the company Logo Logistics acquired a fishing concession in
Equatorial Guinea and bought or hired fishing trawlers.

“Those guys have never caught a fish in their lives,” one source

The trawlers were really to be used first to reconnoitre and then to
transport mercenaries to oust the government of unpopular President
Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in a coup, the sources said. Though part of
Equatorial Guinea is on the African mainland, its capital Malabo is
on the island of Bioko, and it appears that a seaborne coup was
planned, though it is not clear from what staging post it would

Equatorial Guinea and its immediate neighbouring island state of Sao
Tome and Principe have become ripe for coups since oil was recently
discovered in their waters. That has made them big prizes for greedy
politicians and those who help them to acquire power. Sao Tome
experienced a coup in 2003, which was reversed by African Union

On Tuesday the Mbasogo government announced that it had arrested 15
“mercenaries” in Malabo, including white South Africans, black South
Africans of Angolan origin and a few people from Kazakhstan, some
Armenians and a German.

“It was connected with that plane in Zimbabwe. They were the advance
party of that group,” Information Minister Agustin Nse Nfumu said. He
said the 15 had been in the country since December.

The arrests in Malabo corroborate the account of South African
security sources that the real destination of the plane seized in
Harare was Equatorial Guinea, though other destinations have been

South African civil aviation sources say Harare was on the aircraft’s
official flight plan – en route to Burundi.

On Tuesday, a company named in connection with the flight disputed
all the speculation, saying the “mercenaries” were in fact security
people “going to eastern DRC”.

They were stopping in Zimbabwe to pick up mining equipment, “Zimbabwe
being a vastly cheaper place for such”.

Charles Burrow, a senior executive of Logo Logistics which had
chartered the Boeing 727 freighter, said via telephone from London
that most of the people on board were South African and had military
experience, but were on contract to four mining companies in the DRC.
He declined to name the companies.

How then did the crew file a flight plan to Burundi?

Perhaps the most murky leg of the journey was the detour to Zimbabwe,
and there are several different explanations offered of how the plane
came to land in Harare.

One was that the Boeing 727-100 strayed into Zimbabwe airspace by
accident – either through a navigational error or a technical fault –
and another that it flew there deliberately.

Several Zimbabwean aviation sources initially said the plane was
forced to land after entering Zimbabwe airspace illegally. They said
the Airforce of Zimbabwe (AFZ) were alerted once the plane showed up
on radar screens. The AFZ has been on alert for years because of
Mugabe’s fears that his enemies might mount an attack to topple him.

Sources behind this theory say that, upon being questioned, the crew
indicated they had wanted to refuel urgently so they could proceed
with their journey. The plane was then allowed to land.

A problem arose when the crew were told that the plane was going to
be searched, according to this theory. They panicked and tried to
taxi off the runaway but the attempt to escape did not succeed. If it
had succeeded it probably could have caused a disaster as there was a
plane arriving from Johannesburg on the same route.

However, Burrow, the Logo Logistics executive, said the aircraft was
bound for the DRC to do mine security work and had stopped in Harare
to pick up mining security equipment.

A senior Zimbabwean aviation official, involved in the
investigations, said the suspected mercenaries had indeed informed
their interrogators in Harare that they had been hired by a South
African firm for a noble mission to do both mining and demining
security work in the DRC.

The official said Zimbabwean police, army and intelligence officials
were unconvinced by this explanation as many of the suspects had
shown little knowledge of demining work during interrogation. It was
possible that some of the equipment seized was used for mining work.

It is known, however, that it was at Wonderboom Airport that the crew
picked up its passengers, and interesting cargo.

Wonderboom Airport manager Peet van Rensburg confirmed that the plane
landed there early on Sunday morning and departed later that
afternoon with 64 men on board. It is not clear whether this number
included the three-man crew, but the flight plan filed indicated 67
people were on board.

Of these, at least 20 are believed to be South Africans, with the
majority coming from Pretoria and Johannesburg.

According to Van Rensburg, who was phoned by the duty airport
manager, the plane landed without prior notice, and took on
passengers and cargo.

But Craig Partridge of Air Traffic and Navigational Services (ATNS)
said four flight plans for the plane, registration number N4610, had
been filed with ATNS’s briefing office in Johannesburg.

According to the documents, he said, the plane left Lanseria Airport
at 6.55am on Sunday. There were four crew members on board and they
were headed for Wonderboom Airport in Pretoria, where they touched
down at 6.59am.

Van Rensburg said that when he arrived at the airport, he found the
plane parked on the maintenance runway.

He was told that scores of bags containing various “military-like”
equipment had been loaded onto the plane by the crew after the ground
crew’s help was refused.

Army-style duffel bags contained night vision equipment,
waterbottles, apparent gun cases, cylindrical metal tubes, camouflage
uniforms and boots, and two-way radios.

His inquiries also revealed that the plane had a limited amount of
fuel on board as the Wonderboom Airport runway, which is 1,83km in
length, is too short to allow a plane with full fuel load and cargo
to take off.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spokesperson Moses Seate said the CAA
was conducting a probe into the circumstances of the plane’s
“illegal” departure from South African airspace.

But a flight plan filed with ATNS indicates that the plane flew to
Polokwane, an international airport, from where it would proceed to

The plane arrived at Polokwane at 4.35pm. It parked on the main
international apron in front of the international departures building
which houses customs and immigration, Partridge said.

It then took off at 6.24pm, still with 67 people on board, according
to the paperwork, and headed for Harare.

“The air traffic controller on duty saw the men getting on board and
he described all of them as ‘non-white’,” said Partridge.

South African air control handed the plane over to air traffic
control in Harare when it crossed into Zimbabwean airspace at 6.40pm.

Partridge said a fourth flight plan on file shows that the aircraft
planned to leave Harare and fly on to Bujumbura, Burundi. However, it
was seized by Zimbabwean authorities.

A Zimbabwe official confirmed that the aircraft had, in fact, entered
Zimbabwean airspace legally on Sunday night after filing an earlier
flight plan. A problem arose when the crew made a false declaration
of its cargo and passengers.

A crew member allegedly attempted to bribe an airport security
official with wads of US dollars to avoid a search of the aircraft.
That only raised the anxiety of other security officials who
witnessed the bribery attempt, and a search was then mounted.

South African security sources offer another explanation – they also
say the aircraft flew deliberately to Harare, but with the purpose of
picking up Simon Mann, the head of Logo Logistics and leader of the
team heading for Equatorial Guinea, as well as some other members.

“But how they thought they could get away with that, I don’t know,”
one source said.

“The age of coups is past now, they must realise that. You could
probably take Equatorial Guinea with five people but the African
Union is not going to let a coup stand,” he added.

He said Nigerian troops had already been sent to Malabo to protect
Mbasogo’s government.

In 1999, the Organisation of African Unity passed a historic
resolution outlawing coups and resolved to banish from the
organisation any government that came to power by coup.

The men on Flight N4610 have been detained, their plane impounded,
and very little further information about the investigation is being

It is understood the suspected mercenaries have been split up and are
being held at different places around Harare – Chikurubi Maximum
Prison, Harare Central Prison, Harare Central Police cells,
Rhodesville Police Station cells and army barracks around Harare.

They are being interviewed by different groups of interrogators, say

There is some concern among legal rights activists that the men may
be tortured to extract information.

It has not yet been confirmed whether any of the 64 arrested men on
board are, in fact, South Africans.

South African High Commissioner to Zimbabwe Jerry Ndou said his
office had written to Zimbabwe’s ministry of foreign affairs to ask
for information about the detainees. “Our interest is to confirm
whether or not any South Africans have been arrested,” he said.

“But part of the problem is that the cabinet is now in session and so
we have to wait for a reply. Anyway, we are hoping they will come
back to us as soon as possible,” he added.

Commenting on the delays in obtaining information, Ndou said: “I have
written to the ministry, and so there will be consultations with the
minister, the deputy minister, the administrator, the chief director,
all those people. It can be that at this stage we are just waiting on
the minister Stan Mudenge, who is in cabinet.”

Ndou said he needed to know the identities of the detainees so that
he could inform their families at home, and also offer them consular

According to Ndou, the impounded plane has “made big news in the
state media”, with reports stating that Zimbabwe was under siege.

Equatorial Guinea is equally paranoid, believing that the
“mercenaries” were meant for a coup there.

Its information minister, Nfumu, said from Malabo that the suspected
mercenaries had arrived in the former Spanish colony, which borders
Gabon and Cameroon, in December and were picked up late on Monday
evening. He said some of them had been “presented to the diplomatic

The clampdown comes amid growing tensions within Mbasogo’s family,
whose members hold most top positions in the country, and speculation
among exiled opposition politicians that a coup was in the offing.

But this could all be wrong: Logo Logistics, the company that leased
the plane on Harare’s tarmac, said it was carrying 64 mining
contractors to the DRC. It said that what had been described as
“military” items on board were, in fact, equipment such as boots, and
pipe-bending and wire-cutting tools.

“We can make it clear that we have no current or intended business in
Zimbabwe and certainly no illegal intentions against its government
and people,” the company said in a statement sent to Sapa.

It said the aircraft was recently purchased and still registered in
the United States. “There is no other link with the US,” the company

So what’s the solution to all the mysteries? Easy. Frederick Forsyth
just needs to write Dogs of War II.