updated 8/26/2004 7:43:08 AM ET 2004-08-26T11:43:08

Hatched by Old Etonians and other members of the British political and financial elite, an alleged scheme to seize control of this oil-rich nation was no ordinary African coup plot, according to witnesses and prosecutors.

The plan as outlined in a trial that began Monday: send in a motley crew of European, Asian and African mercenaries to oust the 25-year ruler of what is widely considered one of the world’s most corrupt regimes.

The prize: control of Africa’s third-largest oil producer.

But if there was any plot, it went disastrously wrong.

Mark Thatcher, the 51-year-old son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, found himself detained in his pajamas Wednesday at his South African home and later charged with helping to finance the plot, which African authorities said they foiled in March.

Thatcher, an ex-race car driver who has been dogged by accusations of questionable arms deals and shady ventures, was placed under house arrest but not before he was robbed of his shoes, jacket and cell phone in a crowded holding cell. Police recovered the items.

Thatcher’s attorney said his client was cooperating with authorities.

“Mr. Thatcher is not guilty of any allegations,” attorney Alan Bruce-Brand told reporters.

Equatorial Guinea had taken steps toward Thatcher’s extradition, a lawyer for the government said, speaking on condition of anonymity. No arrest warrant has yet been announced.

Soldiers of fortune
But 89 other suspects, including Britons and South Africans, already are on trial — 19 in Equatorial Guinea and 70 in Zimbabwe, having come to the worst pass an accused soldier of fortune can reach — chained hand and foot in dank African prisons, facing possible decades in prison, and, for one defendant, possible execution.

A German defendant, died shortly after his arrest in March of what Equatorial Guinea said was malaria and complications. Witnesses told Amnesty International the complications included torture.

The Equatorial Guinea government’s gusto for the trial picked up considerably with news of Thatcher’s pre-dawn arrest at his home in the upscale Cape Town suburb of Constantia.

Equatorial Guinea Attorney General Jose Olo Obono repeatedly waved off reporters seeking comment. But Obono’s questions of the shackled defendants — forlorn-looking aging men in shackles and overgrown beards — grew from pointed to shouted.

All steps were likely to be taken to bring to justice those responsible, “however highly placed,” a European lawyer representing Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang said outside the chandeliered courtroom in the capital of Malabo.

Surging economy
The Massachusetts-sized nation of just 500,000 has seen the fastest economic growth rate in the world, at up to 70 percent a year, since U.S. oil companies started drilling in the mid-1990s.

Most coups in Africa are family affairs, or emboldened power grabs by embittered army officers.

Equatorial Guinea, backed by its top witness, says this alleged attempt was different.

Testimony has named international financiers: Eli Calil, a British citizen who made fortunes previously in African oil deals, and Thatcher, accused previously of alleged arms-dealing during his mother’s tenure as prime minister.

Prosecutors here and in Zimbabwe say Calil worked with Simon Mann. One of Africa’s leading mercenaries in conflicts in oil- and diamond-rich countries of the 1990s, Mann is an alumnus of the exclusive boarding school Eton, a former British special forces member, and a one-time movie star.

Equatorial Guinea says the coup plotters planned to parachute in a more agreeable opposition figure, exile Severo Moto, to take power from Obiang.

“The people behind this were financial people, and they wanted to institute Severo Moto as the next government,” said Nick du Toit, a South African arms dealer who is facing the death penalty for his alleged role in the plot.

Unelected governments
The takeover would have continued an unbroken history of unelected changes of power in this former Spanish colony. In 1979, Obiang had his uncle executed to succeed him in power.

Du Toit cited what he said were Mann’s sketchy accounts of other foreign backers. Obiang, accused by London-based Global Witness and others of pocketing most of the country’s oil wealth, appeared to have few firm foreign friends.

Mann claimed Spain had promised to recognize the Moto government, according to du Toit, a stooped figure in shackles and flip-flops. Unidentified higher-ups in the United States also had given the plot its blessing, Mann allegedly told du Toit.

Du Toit has given the prosecution its only announced evidence so far of any coup plot. His testimony Wednesday — after Thatcher’s arrest in South Africa — marked the first mention of the former British prime minister’s son in the trial.

Du Toit said Mann introduced him to Thatcher in July 2003. Thatcher was interested in buying military helicopters for a mining operation in Sudan, du Toit testified.

Du Toit also said he and Mann recruited scores of apartheid-era South African army veterans for alleged ground forces. He moved to clear his co-defendants in Equatorial Guinea, saying they did not know the true reason they were recruited.

Verdicts were expected Saturday, in a courtroom filled with international diplomatic observers and armed soldiers lining the walls and slouching in galleries.

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