No escape for alleged mercenaries in Zimbabwe

The road to Chikurubi maximum security prison on the outskirts of the Zimbabwean capital Harare is pot-holed and lined with straggling eucalyptus trees. To the left are yellowed fields, to the right the rundown, brown concrete housing blocks of the paramilitary police.

It was not the route Simon Mann intended to take one sunny day back in March. As he and 69 other alleged mercenaries are set to begin their trial here tomorrow on arms and immigration charges, they will be hoping that the next time they travel down the track it will not be on their way to Equatorial Guinea, whose government they are accused of plotting to oust.

Mann, an old Etonian, former member of the SAS and a businessman with links to Pretoria-based mercenary outfit, Executive Outcomes, had intended to be in and out of Zimbabwe as quickly as possible.

There was the small matter of a £100,000 weapons consignment to take delivery of from the state-owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI). Then he had planned to slip out to Harare International Airport to meet the Boeing 727-100 cargo plane his company Logo Logistics had bought in South Africa a few days earlier.

Waiting for him on the plane were more than 60 men, most of them Namibians, Angolans and South Africans. Many were down-at-heel ex-members of 32-Buffalo Battalion, an apartheid-era mercenary force. Mann and his associates had, so they claim, contracted them to guard diamond mines in the rebel-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They had been promised a salary of more than £3,000 a month.

But Mannís plans went wrong and, instead of a smooth take-off, Zimbabwean military police stormed the Boeing. Home affairs minister Kembo Mohadi announced triumphantly that a plane-load of "mercenaries of various nationalities" had been captured.

For a day or so after their arrest it was not clear whether the men had intended to attack the Zimbabwean regime and the government announced that the army had been put on full alert.

But then, 1,920 miles north of Zimbabwe, the government of Equatorial Guinea announced it had captured an "advance party" of 15 mercenaries. One of the detainees, Nicholas du Toit - who also has ties to Executive Outcomes - appeared on state television in Malabo to confess to a plot to oust President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and install exiled opposition leader Severo Moto.

In a secret location in Zimbabwe, the 70 men signed confessions admitting their involvement. Their lawyers say they were tortured first.

It was the start of a new dawn in relations between Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea, a tiny West African state whose status as Africaís third biggest oil producer will, analysts say, prove useful in eventually securing the extradition of the suspects from fuel-starved Zimbabwe. It was also the beginning of a nightmare for the men, by now held behind the razor-wire-topped walls of Chikurubi.

The detainees - at least two of whom have provided security to British Department for International Development staff operating in Iraq - are sticking to the guarding diamond mines story. One said he had never heard of Equatorial Guinea.

The Boeingís pilot, South African Jaap Steyl, testified that all he had signed up to was a short flight to Bujumbura in the DRC during a two-week holiday from his regular job - flying an Indian MP between his international brewery concerns.

The menís families are distraught. Several have taken out a short-term lease on a house in Harare and attend court hearings together, packed lunches in hand. Shortly after the menís capture, a few made a half-hearted attempt to claim their relatives were bounty-hunters out to capture deposed Liberian president Charles Taylor and claim a $2 million (£1.07 million) reward from the United States. Those claims have since been dropped. Attempts are being made to force the South African government to apply for the menís extradition back home.

One court has already rejected the case: the Zimbabwean authorities agreed to put off the trial from yesterday to tomorrow to allow an appeal to be heard. "They asked for the case to be postponed and we did not object to that because they were open about it,íí state prosecutor Lawrence Phiri said.

But there is no evidence Harare plans to go soft on the men. Foreign minister Stan Mudenge has threatened them with the death penalty, although state prosecutors have only charged them with offences under firearms, aviation, security and immigration laws, which carry a fine or a five-year jail term.

That is unlikely to be the end of the story. It emerged yesterday that the president of Equatorial Guinea is seeking damages in a separate action at Londonís High Court against the men.

There is also mounting evidence that Mr Mugabeís regime will send the men to Equatorial Guinea, before or even after they have served sentence here. Zimbabwe has recently added Equatorial Guinea - whose human rights record is no prettier than Zimbabweís - to the list of countries with which it has extradition treaties. Preparations for extradition are said to be well advanced.

Interest in the case in Harare has waned. "The attitude is - so what, itís an occupational hazard," said one diplomat. "I donít think anybody cares. This matter is for the embassies involved. Itís a tough reality, but I think theyíre on their own."

[Source: Jane Fields in Harare, The Scotsman, 20Jul04]

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