Sir Mark Thatcher threatened over 'mercenary' friend
Sir Mark Thatcher and his family have been threatened by anonymous blackmailers over his friendship with Simon Mann, the former SAS officer and alleged mercenary leader on trial in Zimbabwe.
Sir Mark and his Texan wife, Diane, who live in the elegant Cape Town suburb of Constantia, are among several of Mr Mann's friends to have received menacing calls from men with South African accents demanding large sums of money. One caller said that he knew where the Thatchers' two children went to school.
The would-be blackmailers are believed to be linked to Afrikaner members of the alleged mercenary gang who have fallen out with Mr Mann since their arrest in Harare. The men are accused of planning to stage a coup in Equatorial Guinea.
The callers are thought to be attempting to extort money from Mr Mann's acquaintances in revenge for the falling out, but none is known to have paid.
Another friend of the Old Etonian and former Scots Guards officer was the victim of an extortion attempt over afternoon tea at one of London's leading hotels.
"The man seemed to think that he could intimidate me into handing over £25,000 by threatening to reveal I was a friend of Simon," he said. "I told him to get lost."
Mr Mann had smuggled a letter out of his Harare prison cell asking for help from "Scratcher", understood to be rhyming slang for Thatcher.
There is no suggestion that Sir Mark, the son of Lady Thatcher, the former prime minister, has any link to the alleged coup plot.
Asked to comment about the threats, he said yesterday that he had decided not to talk at all about the Simon Mann affair. "Nothing that I could say would improve the situation," he said. "All his friends, of which I am one, are acutely aware that he is still incarcerated and care must be taken not to inflame the situation."
In Zimbabwe, the trial of Mr Mann and his 69 South African co-accused opened on Wednesday but was adjourned until this week. They deny the coup charges, saying that they were en route to guard a mine in Congo when their plane landed in Harare in March.
The trial delay is the result of complicated wrangling about the men's fate, involving the governments of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Equatorial Guinea.
Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, had been expected to extradite the men to Equatorial Guinea in return for a cheap oil deal.
South Africa, however, is understood to be using its influence over Mr Mugabe to persuade him that the extradition deal would not be in Zimbabwe's "best interests", a western diplomat said.
The African National Congress government is determined to destroy South Africa's reputation as a source of guns for hire. It is also understood, however, to be wary that so many of its citizens could be sent for trial in Equatorial Guinea. The small West African country has a poor human rights record and the men could face the death penalty.
According to South African legal observers, a deal was being hammered out under which most of the accused would plead guilty to immigration and firearms charges in return for light jail sentences. They were hoping to be deported back to South Africa immediately, having already been held for nearly five months in Harare's high-security Chikurubi prison. About 30 wives of the detained men saw their husbands for the first time since their arrest after travelling to Zimbabwe in the hope of a deal. The 70 accused were led into the courtroom in handcuffs and leg-irons, wearing thin and torn prison khaki shorts and shirts.
Mr Mann, 51, is a scion of the Watneys brewing empire who has spent his time in captivity reading the works of Shakespeare. His father, George, captained the England cricket team in the late 1940s. His wife, Amanda, did not attend the hearing.
Mr Mann's case is complicated by his status as the alleged leader of the coup plot. He was previously involved with the private military outfits Executive Outcomes and Sandline, and has British and South African citizenship.
Although the other 69 defendants all hold South African passports, 23 originally come from Angola, 18 from Namibia and two from Congo. Most of them were black soldiers in the apartheid-era South African army.
[Source: By Philip Sherwell, Chief Foreign Correspondent, Telegraph, London, UK, 20jul04]
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