NBC News and news services
updated 3/10/2004 2:13:29 PM ET 2004-03-10T19:13:29

Zimbabwe threatened Wednesday to execute a band of 64 “foreign mercenaries” detained in Harare, alleging that the imprisoned suspects were hired by a South African mercenary organization and British special forces.

Meanwhile, Equatorial Guinea accused a group of 15 suspected mercenaries detained there of being part of a plot funded by “enemy powers” and multinationals.

“They are going to face the severest punishment available in our statutes, including capital punishment,” Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge said Wednesday at a news conference. “We will give them all the rights they are entitled to.”

South Africa’s high commissioner to Zimbabwe, Jeremiah Ndou, said the suspects were expected in court Wednesday or Thursday and would be assisted in finding lawyers.

British special forces allegedly involved
Zimbabwe’s state-run television reported Tuesday that investigations showed that the plane carrying the suspects, which was impounded late Sunday at the main Harare international airport, was linked to a South African firm known as Executive Outcomes that in the past hired mostly former apartheid-era South African soldiers for mercenary and security work across Africa.

The television report quoted Zimbabwean Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi as saying British SAS, or Special Air Service, forces were believed also to have been involved. He did not elaborate, and no comment was immediately available from Britain or South Africa.

The crew of the aging Boeing 727 and the aircraft’s operator say the plane was carrying security guards bound for mineral mines in the central African nations of the Congo and Burundi.

State television said the plane was carrying 20 South African nationals, groups of Angolans, Congolese, Namibians, and a Zimbabwean carrying a South African passport.

Shortly after the plane was seized, state television showed a cargo of what it called “military materiel” aboard the plane, including camouflage uniforms, sleeping bags, compasses and wire cutters, but no guns.

The plane and its passengers were taken to a nearby military airfield, the station said.

The plane’s registration number, N4610, is assigned to Dodson Aviation Inc. of Ottawa, Kan. However, company director Robert Dodson said it had sold the aircraft about a week ago to another company, Logo Logistics Ltd.

Mudenge said Zimbabwe had been in contact with the government of the oil-rich central African state of Equatorial Guinea, which announced Tuesday the arrest of 15 “foreign mercenaries” saying they were an advance party connected to the Harare group.

Coup plot alleged
Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, said in a speech Tuesday night that foreign countries had conspired to overthrow him and replace him with an exiled politician living in Spain.

“In the course of questioning, we have found that they were financed by enemy powers, by multinational companies, by countries that do not love us,” Obiang said in the speech, which was broadcast by state radio and television.

He thanked South Africa and Angola for warning him of the plot, but he added:

“There are other countries who knew about this attempt and did not contribute information. We will have to qualify them as enemies. Multinational firms operating here and outside who contributed to this operation are also enemy companies.”

He did not identify any of the countries or firms.

Ndou, the South African envoy to Zimbabwe, was trying to verify the status of those on board the plane, the South African Foreign Affairs Ministry said.

“Should the allegations that those South Africans on board are involved in mercenary activities prove true, this would amount to a serious breach of the Foreign Military Assistance Act, which expressly prohibits the involvement of South Africans in military activities outside South Africa without the due authorization of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee,” Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad said in a statement.

Plane’s operator befuddled
The plane’s operator, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, insisted that the seized aircraft had been flying security men from South Africa to guard mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It declined to name the customers it was acting for.

Asked about the accusation by Equatorial Guinea, Charles Burrows, a senior executive of Logo Logistics, said Tuesday: “I haven’t the foggiest idea of what they’re talking about.”

Zimbabwe, which is bitterly at odds in recent years with the United States and old European colonial powers, said the plot involving the “mercenaries” had been an elaborate one.

“Apparently this was not one mission. ... After the diversion in Equatorial Guinea they were going to the DRC,” Mudenge said, referring to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Zimbabwean authorities said they also arrested a man identified as Simon Mann, a former member of the Britain’s Special Air Service, and two others who were at the airport to meet the Boeing 727 when it landed Sunday in Harare.

Equatorial Guinea has been rounding up African foreigners since Saturday amid tensions within Obiang’s clan, which is dominant in a nation of just half a million that is one of Africa’s biggest oil producers.

President seized power in 1979
Obiang seized power from his uncle in 1979 and has been wooed by Nigeria and Western oil firms. Last year, the country pumped 350,000 barrels per day, ranking third in sub-Saharan Africa behind Nigeria and Angola.

The oil wealth has been unevenly shared, critics say. Human rights groups accuse Obiang of jailing and torturing opponents.

Government officials said the 15 suspects arrived in December. One had confessed to acting for a Lebanese businessman close to Severo Moto, president of a self-styled “government-in-exile.”

Moto was exiled to Spain for plotting a coup in his homeland, where Frederick Forsyth wrote a classic 1970s tale of mercenary skullduggery, “The Dogs of War.”

NBC's Charlene Gubash, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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