Death of a mercenary

Ha’aretz, Israel
April 15 2005

Death of a mercenary

By Yossi Melman

About 10 days ago, my phone rang in the middle of the night. “My name
is Dr. Alexander fvon Paleske and I am calling you from Gaborone,” a
man’s voice said in English tinged with a heavy German accent. “Have
you heard about the coup in Equatorial Guinea?” Dr. Von Paleske is
head of the oncology department at Princess Marina Hospital in
Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, in southern Africa. “I want to
remove the mercenaries from Africa,” he explained. “As a physician, I
see the disastrous consequences of their criminal deeds on the

Why did you call me, of all people?

Von Pleske: “Because I found your name on the Internet in the context
of Gerhard Eugen Merz.”

What is your connection with him?

“I have no direct connection with him.”

Gerhard Merz was an arms dealer; I didn’t know he was a mercenary.

“He certainly was. He was murdered during the coup attempt in
Equatorial Guinea.”

On March 7, 2004, the Zimbabwe police detained a chartered plane that
had arrived in Harare, the capital, from South Africa, and arrested
70 of the passengers. Most of those detained were South African
citizens. They said they had been hired by a security consultancy
company to guard a diamond mine in Congo. A few days later, the
government of Equatorial Guinea announced that its police had
arrested 20 people, most of them Armenians and South Africans, who
were the vanguard for the force that was arrested in Harare.
According to the announcement, the two groups were connected and had
planned to topple the regime of President Teodoro Obiang.

Merz, who was one of those arrested in Malabo, the capital of
Equatorial Guinea, was suspected of being the conspirators’
“transportation officer,” his task being to supply them with a plane
and an Armenian crew, and to look after the flight arrangements. Merz
died about 10 days after his arrest; his body was flown to Germany
and buried there. The official cause of death was malaria, but Von
Paleske is convinced that Merz was murdered. He therefore asked the
German authorities to perform an autopsy to determine the cause of

The Israeli connection

Who was Gerhard Merz? Very little is known about him. He was born in
Frankfurt in 1947. During his youth he stayed for a while in Israel.
In 1963 he returned to Germany. Attempts to find information about
his status and activities in Israel from the Interior Ministry and
from other sources were unsuccessful. What Merz did for the next 30
years – from the time he left Israel until May 18, 1995 – is not
known. At that time his name was included in an executive order
signed by U.S. President Bill Clinton and sent to Congress, stating
that Merz had been involved in “proliferation of nuclear, biological
and chemical weapons” to Iran. (Clinton signed the order in November
1994; the date in May refers to his letter to Congress informing them
of the fact; see )

The sales were made from 1991 to 1993. Two of Merz’s associates,
Manfred Felber, an Austrian, and Luciano Moscatelli, an Australian,
were also named in the presidential directive. It also listed several
companies that the three owned, or which were connected with them.
One of them, Mainway International, was registered in Bad Homburg,
Germany, and in Hong Kong. According to the order, the three men and
their companies were being blacklisted along with others who had
violated the American and international embargo on trading with Iran
in general, and in chemical warfare (CW) equipment, in particular.
The order bars Americans from doing business with people and
companies who are on the blacklist.

Neither the order nor the involvement of the three generated serious
interest in the international media, and so the subject did not come
up on the public agenda. Not in Germany, not in Austria, not in
Australia and not in the U.S. It was only four years later than an
investigative report in Haaretz (January 1999) exposed the details of
the sale of CW equipment to Iran. Surprisingly, it turned out that an
Israeli businessman, Moshe Regev (Regenstreich) was also associated
with the group.

Regev served in the Israel Defense Forces as a munitions man in an
armored brigade and was discharged with the rank of major after the
1973 Yom Kippur War. In the 1970s he tried his hand at several
businesses, notably in diamonds and trading in gold. The businesses
foundered, the debts accumulated (to the First International Bank,
among others) and Regev left Israel. He went to Germany and then
Switzerland, and got into trouble in both countries as he was
suspected of committing acts of fraud and deceit. While abroad he met
Merz and Felber, and together with them registered Mainway
International. That is the company which, according to Clinton’s
executive order, supplied Iran with CW materials that were acquired
in China.

The Haaretz investigation turned up additional details. It emerged
that Merz, Felber (who is married to an Iranian woman) and Regev
maintained ties with an Iranian acquisition network headed by Dr.
Majid Abbaspour. Abbaspour was head of Unit 105 in the Iranian
Defense Ministry and was responsible for its missile and CW program.
He was also the liaison, meeting several times in Vienna not only
with Merz and Felber, but also with Israeli businessman Nahum Manbar.

Both on the blacklist

It is hard to ignore the similarities between the Manbar affair and
the deals made by Merz, Felber and Regev. Both groups, that of Manbar
and his aides (who later testified against him), Brigadier General
Amos Kotzer and Doran Lichtman, and that of Merz, purchased chemicals
in China. Both groups met with Abbaspour in Vienna and elsewhere in
Europe. Both were placed on the U.S. State Department blacklist,
which was draw up in part on the basis of intelligence information.
The 1999 article in Haaretz asked why, in that case, Manbar had been
arrested and sentenced by an Israeli court to 16 years in prison for
security offenses, whereas no action was taken against Regev (who was
also apparently an Israeli citizen).

After the article appeared, Regev called at his initiative from the
U.S. and vehemently denied the suspicion that he had been involved in
selling chemicals to Iran. He related that Felber and Merz had
proposed that he sell Iran telephones and that he had taken them up
on the offer. But Regev added another interesting detail: He revealed
in the interview that he had reported to the security authorities
(probably the Defense Ministry and the Shin Bet security service)
about his contacts with the Iranians.

That detail also recalled Manbar’s story. During his dealings with
Iran, Manbar met from time to time with a Shin Bet agent and told him
about his ties with the Iranians, though in his trial in 1997, it
turned out that he had not reported everything he knew or the full
scope of his deals. In reaction to the publication of Regev’s account
in Haaretz, official spokesmen of the Defense Ministry and the Prime
Minister’s Office denied knowing Regev or knowing about his
activities and the operations of Mainway International.

In the six years since the article appeared, Regev-Regenstreich
continued to get into trouble and commit offenses. He was arrested in
South Africa on suspicion of committing acts of fraud. The German
prosecutor Reinhard Hubner said this week in a phone call from his
office in Giessen that he had dealt with Regev’s case. In 2002, he
said, Regev was extradited from Switzerland to Germany, where he was
wanted on suspicion of having committed fraud. In Germany he was
incarcerated until the end of his trial. A court in the city of
Friedberg in the State of Hessen found Regev guilty of committing
acts of fraud.

According to the indictment, he fraudulently pocketed money through a
company and a hotel he owned. He was given a two-year suspended
sentence and released. Since then he has disappeared and this week
could not be located. As far as is known, there was no connection
between the deeds of Gerhard Merz in Equatorial Guinea and his former
partner Moshe Regev.

International intrigue

Until a few years ago, Equatorial Guinea was one of the most remote
places in Africa. It lies in West Africa, between Cameroon and Gabon,
and consists of a stretch of coast and five inhabited islands;
Malabo, the capital, is located on the largest of the islands. The
country has an area of 28,000 square kilometers and a population of
about 500,000. For 190 years Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony,
gaining independence in 1968. Since then it has been ruled by two
relatives, an uncle and his nephew, each of whom in turn is
considered corrupt and responsible for serial human rights abuses.

At Christmas 1975, the first president, Francisco Masias Nguema,
ordered his militia to arrest 150 of his rivals. They were taken to
the stadium in Malabo and massacred while in the background, the song
“Those Were the Days” blared from loudspeakers. Under Nguema’s
despotic terror regime, a third of the country’s inhabitants were
either killed or fled, and lived as refugees in neighboring

In 1979 the president was arrested and executed by order of his
nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the current president. On
paper, the country has a democratic constitution, and the nephew, who
seized power, saw to it that the existence of at least a semblance of
democracy was apparent. He was elected three times to seven-year
terms. In the last elections, in 2002, he won a majority of 97.1
percent (the opposition candidates withdrew, fearing fraud). However,
international human rights organizations such as Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch say that the country is
languishing under a tyrannical regime accompanied by a personality

According to reports of such groups, Equatorial Guinea is rife with
acts of killing, mass arrest and torture of prisoners. There are no
newspapers in the country and the only radio station is under the
direct control of the president. Two years ago, an announcer on the
radio station described the president as “the country’s god” and
added that he was in constant communication with “Almighty God” and
hears his voice. A presidential aide explained that Obiang “can
decide to kill anyone without explanation and without being sent to
hell, because he acts at the guidance of God himself.”

Equatorial Guinea might have continued to be far from the world’s eye
and heart, had it not been for the discovery of oil there. In Africa,
only Nigeria and Angola have larger oil reserves. Since the
discovery, the world’s attitude toward Equatorial Guinea – or, more
accurately, the attitude of the multinational oil companies and the
governments behind them – has changed. TotalFinaElf of France,
Patronas of Malaysia, Energy Africa of South Africa, and the American
firms Exxon Mobil, Marathon Oil and Chevron Texaco hurried to win a
stake in the new bonanza. To date they have invested some $5 billion
to develop the oil fields. In return they received generous
franchises that give them control and handsome profits.

No such profits reach the country’s inhabitants, though. They
continue to subsist in abject poverty and to die young. Their average
income, according to a World Bank report, is $2 a day; their average
lifespan is 49 years. The money flows into the deep pockets of
President Obiang and a few hundreds of his relatives, ministers,
police officers and other cronies. About six months ago, a
subcommittee of the U.S. Senate discovered that the Washington-based
Riggs Bank was used to launder money for the president and his close
circle. Accounts totaling $700 million were found in their name in
the bank.

The sudden wealth has also made Equatorial Guinea a hothouse of
international intrigue. The president’s opponents have established a
government-in-exile in Spain. In 1998, 2002 and last month, three
failed coup attempts were mounted. The trials of two of the groups
that were arrested in March, in Zim babwe and in Equatorial Guinea,
turned up details that might have come from “The Dogs of War,” the
novel by the British journalist and writer Frederick Forsyth, which
was published more than 30 years ago. The novel is about a group of
European mercenaries operating in Africa on a mission for British
businessmen, with the aim of toppling the government in a fictitious
country rich in natural resources. The goal of the businessmen, who
are well connected to the political and economic elite in Britain, is
to seize control of the country’s platinum mines.

Forsyth spent time in Equatorial Guinea while researching the book,
and there is no doubt that he had the country in mind when he wrote
his best-seller. The image of the country that Forsyth created has
haunted it for years. After the abortive coup of 1998, it was enough
for a tourist to be found with a copy of the book for him to be
arrested on suspicion of plotting to topple the government.

Forsyth foresaw the future. As in his novel, most of the detainees in
the latest coup attempt are former military personnel with rich
combat experience. They have ties with British businessmen, bankers
and politicians. The only difference is that instead of platinum,
they are lured by the oil of Equatorial Guinea.

Private army

The leader of the group of rebels who were apprehended in Equatorial
Guinea is Nick du Toit, an arms dealer and former member of an elite
unit in the South African army. In his trial he revealed that the
coup attempt was organized by Severo Moto, an opposition leader
living in exile, who found asylum in Spain. The court sentenced Moto
in absentia to a lengthy prison term. Du Toit, who is in his
thirties, stated in his defense that his role in the conspiracy was
limited and included only recruiting the manpower, obtaining weapons
and coordinating the plot. The prosecutor, however, was not persuaded
and did not hesitate to brand du Toit a “dog of war.”

Du Toit, who has lost 30 kilograms since his arrest, alleged that he
had been tortured during his interrogation and that his “confessions”
were extracted under duress. In his testimony he related that the
commander of the plotters was Simon Mann, who was one of those
arrested in Zimbabwe. For the past decade Mann has been a household
name in the realm of schemes and coups in Africa and in the Third
World as a whole. He is one of three British associates who have
created a kind of “label” for themselves in the coup department. The
three – Mann, Tony Buckingham and Tim Spicer – can take credit for
trying to “launder” the term “mercenaries” so as to rid it of its
pejorative connotations.

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer, now in his fifties, was an English
“flower child” who came to the U.S. and took part in demonstrations
against the Vietnam War. Returning to England, he joined the elite
SAS unit (Special Air Service), which was established in World War II
by Colonel David Stirling in order to operate behind enemy lines. To
this day the unit is a role model for the special forces in many
armies. The founder of Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit, Avraham
Arnan, was deeply influenced by the SAS and its exploits.

During his service in the unit, on behalf of the British government,
Spicer was part of the team that protected Sultan Kabous, of Oman. In
the 1970s the sultan was aided by British troops in suppressing a
left-wing uprising in the province of Dofar. Some time later, Spicer
was assigned to the headquarters of the Special Forces, where he
became acquainted at first-hand with the interface between the world
of special military operations and the world of shadow diplomacy.
Afterward he was transferred to service in another elite unit: the
Scots Guards. Its historic role is to protect the queen when she is
in London, but in practice it is a military unit that is well trained
for special operations.

In the Scots Guards, Spicer met his accomplice in arms and future
business, Simon Mann, scion of a wealth family of beer brewers. Mann
attended Eton, a school that is a breeding ground for the political,
military and economic elites of Britain. At the conclusion of his
studies, he, like Spicer, volunteered for the SAS. During their
service in the unit, Spicer and Mann were stationed in Northern
Ireland. The unit’s mission was to fight against the terrorist
organizations of the Catholics and the Protestants alike. In 1992, a
squad from the unit under Spicer’s direct command was involved in a
controversial incident, which resulted in the killing of Peter
McBride, a young Catholic. Allegations continue to be made that the
unit violated the rules of engagement in the incident.

After completing their military service, the two opened and shut
several businesses where they marketed the only commodity in which
they were skilled: military know-how and special operations. In 1995
they met Tony Buckingham. Like them, he was a former fighter in a
special unit of the British Army – the SBS (Special Boat Service),
the British Navy’s commando force. Like them, he was plugged into the
political establishment and numbered among his friends senior figures
in the Conservative Party, as well as David Steele, the leader of the
Liberal Party (which merged with the Social Democrat Party), who was
on the board of directors of one Buckingham’s companies.

Buckingham’s initial steps in business were modest. At the beginning
of the 1990s he worked as a diver on oil rigs in the North Sea. He
then set up his own company, Heritage Oil, which operated oilfields
in Angola. In 1993, when rebels from the UNITA movement led by Jonas
Savimbi seized the company’s oil facilities, Buckingham realized that
he needed security. To that end he forged ties with Executive
Outcomes, a private security company owned by former members of top
units in the South African army, who were left idle following the
collapse of the apartheid regime.

Instead of the dirty missions against the blacks (especially the
liquidation of opponents of the regime), the company’s officials, all
of them skilled former soldiers, began to carry out special
operations for Tony Buckingham.

At first this was in the service of the Angolan government’s oil
business, but the company very quickly gained fame in other regions
of the continent. Apart from securing oilfields, the firm also
supplied guard services for diamond and gold mines in Congo and
Sierra Leone. It was in Sierra Leone that the company employed Nick
du Toit.

That activity paved the way for the group to supply a “private army”
to the governments of Rwanda and Burundi. Their operations were also
convenient for the British government. The vestiges of the colonial
tradition, in which the government draws on the aid of private
entrepreneurs to advance its interests, continue to exist. The
company’s activity in Africa served salient interests of the City,
the British business community. Secret reports of British
intelligence revealed the close ties between MI6, the secret service,
and the trio.

The trio’s employers in Africa were governments, but governments of
dubious reputation that were engaged in civil wars or other
conflicts. Providing security for mines sometimes entails supplying
mercenaries to protect the head of state. Nor was the company choosy
about its clients. In 1995, for example, Tony Buckingham flew to
Baghdad and met with Saddam Hussein’s oil minister.

Coup attempt

The media began to take an interest in the company and the ground
began to burn beneath the feet of the three. Buckingham realized that
it was time to change direction, or at least image. The three met in
October 1996 in an Italian restaurant in London, in Chelsea, not far
from Kings Road, where the company’s offices were located. In the
meeting they formulated a new strategy. They reached the conclusion
that Executive Outcomes had become more of a liability than an asset;
they decided to repackage their product and offer the world a new
concept. The term “mercenaries” would be replaced by a more sterile
name – Private Military Companies (PMC). What they were doing is
privatizing military services. Executive Outcomes was shut down and
in its place arose a new firm, Sandline International.

The group’s next operation took place at the other end of the world.
In 1997, the government of Papua New Guinea hired the services of
Sandline. The official purpose was to suppress a revolt that had
broken out on the island of Bougainville. The true goal, though, was
to open the copper mine on the island, which the rebels had seized
and shut down. Behind this plan was not only the legitimate
government of Papua New Guinea, but also Australian and British
businessmen with interests in the mine.

The operation failed already at the airport, even before it got off
the ground, so to speak. The Australian Air Force intercepted a
Soviet-made Antonov transport aircraft on which were found
helicopters and weapons earmarked for Sandline’s mercenaries. The
investigators discovered that the plane had been leased by Spicer. He
was arrested and charged with illegal possession of arms, but was
released under pressure from the government of Tony Blair, which had
good reasons to keep the affair secret.

Spicer returned to London and continued to operate without
interference in Sierra Leone and other African countries. In the past
year his name resurfaced. He had in the meantime left Sandline and
now, through another of his companies, Aegis Defense Service, he won
a $300-million contract from the Pentagon to supply security services
in Iraq. Spicer employs about 20,000 security guards, many of them
South Africans, who provide auxiliary services for the U.S. armed
forces and the Iraqi government. Recently, the parents of Peter
McBride – the Irish youngster who was shot by the Scots Guards – with
the help of the Irish lobby in Washington, have been trying to get
Spicer’s contract annulled because of his responsibility for their
son’s death.

As though the labyrinthine exploits of Buckingham, Mann and Spicer
were not enough, the failed coup in Equatorial Guinea turned up an
even more famous name: Sir Mark Thatcher. In August 2004, about five
months after the conspirators were arrested, the South African police
detained the son of Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of
Britain. The arrest was made at the request of the Equatorial Guinea
authorities, who maintain that Thatcher was involved in financing the
coup attempt.

As a young man, Thatcher, 51, was a racecar driver and afterward a
failed businessman. In the 1980s, when his mother, the “Iron Lady,”
was prime minister, the pampered son tried to exploit the family name
to promote his business. Among other projects, he represented British
firms in arms deals in Oman and Saudi Arabia, pocketing millions in
commissions and becoming a wealthy man. In 1984, under mounting
criticism that he was taking advantage of his family connections to
make easy profits, Mark Thatcher left Britain for the U.S. There he
became entangled in a failed transaction and moved to South Africa.

After a few court hearings in Cape Town, in which Thatcher pleaded
his innocence, he was released on bail and placed under house arrest.
The bail bond, in the amount of $330,000, was posted by his mother,
the former prime minister. The government of Equatorial Guinea
demanded that South Africa extradite Thatcher, but behind the scenes,
with the intercession of senior personages from South Africa and
Britain, a plea bargain was worked out. In January 2005, Mark
Thatcher appeared in court again, but this time pleased guilty to
lesser charges. He was convicted on the basis of his confession of
violating laws against the activity of “mercenaries” in South Africa.
The court accepted the plea bargain, sentenced Thatcher to pay a fine
of $500,000, and ordered him released.

While Thatcher’s case was being heard in court, a court in Harare
sentenced Simon Mann to seven years in prison. In January 2005, the
Supreme Court of Zimbabwe reduced the sentence to four years. The
British and South African media have published a few fantasy-like
articles about a daring prison-break operation at the initiative of
Buckingham and Spicer, which could outdo even the juicy descriptions
of Frederick Forsyth.