Zimbabwe says men seized at airport are mercenaries

It says their target was Equatorial Guinea

March 11, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Zimbabwean authorities have threatened to execute 64 men who were on a plane seized Sunday at the airport in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, calling them mercenaries who were on their way to sow conflict in Equatorial Guinea.

The Herald, Zimbabwe's state-owned newspaper, reported that 20 of the men are South Africans, 23 are Angolans, 18 are Namibians, two are Congolese and one is a Zimbabwean with a South African passport.

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, which recent oil discoveries have made one of the continent's biggest oil producers, said the group was part of a quest by "enemy powers" to overthrow his government.

South Africa and Angola had alerted him to a plot in which countries and multinational companies hostile to his 23-year rule had conspired to replace him with a politician living in exile in Spain, he said.

An executive with the company that operated the plane, an aging Boeing 727, said it had been engaged to transport security guards hired by mining companies to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"It is all a dreadful misunderstanding," Charles Burrows, a senior executive of the company, Logo Logistics Ltd., told South African reporters.

Obiang said that confirmation of the plot had come from questioning about 15 people - seven of them South Africans - who were arrested Monday in his country and accused of conspiring to stage a coup.

"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," the president said.

Without identifying them, Obiang said certain countries knew of the coup attempt but did nothing and would be considered enemies.

"Multinational firms operating here and outside who contributed to this operation are also enemy companies," Obiang said.

The plane belonged to a small aviation company in Kansas until last week, when, an executive of that company said, it was sold. South African aviation officials said the plane landed at a small airport near the capital, Pretoria, on Sunday morning, and took on the 64 passengers and a three-member crew.

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