March 24, 2004

Charles Taylor may have been 'mercenaries' target

A saga of claim and counterclaim surrounding suspected African mercenaries continued today when the men’s families disclosed that they had been on a mission to abduct Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former warlord-turned-president. The men, detained in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea, face possible death penalties, having been charged with planning to overthrow the president of the tiny West African country. Seventy suspects have been remanded in custody at Zimbabwe’s top security prison. Fifteen others are incarcerated in Equatorial Guinea, accused of accepting an offer from exiled opposition leaders of $1.8 million (£1m) and oil rights to overthrow the Government. However, family and friends told South African newspapers today that the men were simply planning to use Guinea as a staging post on a mission to capture Mr Taylor. He carries a $2 million (£1.1m) bounty to be paid by America on delivery to the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone.

The Guinean capital, Malabo, is less than 200 miles from Calabar, the port city in southeast Nigeria where Mr Taylor has claimed asylum. The alleged mercenaries, who are mostly former members of South Africa’s apartheid-era military forces, but are said to be led by Simon Mann, an old Etonian and former SAS officer, had hired two fishing trawlers in Equatorial Guinea. There was also a rubber dinghy among equipment seized along with 64 undeclared passengers on an ageing cargo plane in Zimbabwe. The families insist that the vessels were to be used in a sea-borne assault on the Nigerian port. Taylor was indicted by the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal last June on 17 counts of crimes against humanity for his role in arming and training the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in a decade-long rebellion which left up to 200,000 dead. The court’s chief investigator said that he would welcome anybody, "even a private company", who could deliver Taylor to stand trial.The US Congress has since authorised a $2 million bounty.

Within days of the announcement, Northbridge Services Group, a private company based in London, placed an advertisement on its website offering to "split the profits on the reward" with any partner interested in helping to fund and execute an operation to snatch Taylor from his Nigerian villa. Northbridge has a history of involvement in West African conflicts and is widely reported to have close links with the arrested men. Conflicting claims about their true intentions have been rife since their capture earlier this month. First Equatorial Guinea claimed that the ageing Boeing 727-100 had been flying mercenaries from South Africa to topple its Government. Then the flight operators said that it had been flying experts to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo to provide security and other support services to mining companies. Then Kembo Wohabi, the Zimbabwean Minister of Home Affairs, said that the men were planning to aid a Congo rebel group and had stopped in Harare to buy arms. Zimbabwe has subsequently backed Equitorial Guinea’s claims, a line endorsed by Mann's alleged accomplice, Nick du Toit, who appeared on television in the former Spanish colony and confessed to the plot to topple the leader of the oil-rich country. (The Times, London)

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