May 14, 2004

Zim strikes deal detainees-for-fuel

In an unusual diplomatic arrangement, Zimbabwe has entered a US$1,2 billion deal to extradite the 70 suspected mercenaries currently held in Harare to Equatorial Guinea in exchange for fuel. Intelligence sources say President Robert Mugabe discussed the deal with his Equatorial Guinea counterpart, Teodora Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, at their initial meeting in Pretoria with South African president Thabo Mbeki on April 27. Mugabe and Obiang were in South Africa to attend Mbeki's inauguration. The three leaders are said to have met over the mercenaries' saga after Zimbabwe had earlier refused to send the suspects for trial in the oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Sources said the meeting agreed in principle that Zimbabwe would extradite the suspected mercenaries on agreed terms and conditions. Mugabe and Obiang finalised the mercenaries-for-fuel arrangement at a meeting in Bulawayo the following day. The two leaders met at State House in the second city on April 28. After the meeting Obiang told journalists that they had been discussing the issue of the suspects' extradition. High-level sources said Mugabe agreed to extradite the suspected soldiers of fortune on condition Equatorial Guinea - the third largest oil producer after Nigeria and Angola in sub-Saharan Africa -would supply Zimbabwe with fuel.

The sources said the deal entailed a supply of US$50 million worth of fuel monthly for two years, split between 65 million litres of diesel and 40 million litres of petrol. However, Energy and Power Development minister July Moyo said he was not aware of the deal. "I have no idea at all," he said. The deal is said to be worth more than the one signed between Zimbabwe and Libya valued at US$360 million a year, which has since collapsed. Zimbabwe needs about US$40 million a month to ensure adequate fuel supplies. If the deal goes through Zimbabwe would be able to secure additional fuel worth US$10 million every month to rebuild strategic reserves. Sources said the new deal would start rolling as soon as the mercenaries were extradited. Fifteen other suspects in the same plot are currently held in Equatorial Guinea. The men were arrested on March 7 in Harare after they landed at the airport allegedly to collect weapons bought from the Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI). The suspects were charged for allegedly violating the Public Order and Security Act, immigration, aviation, and firearms laws. They, however, deny all the charges.

If implemented, the deal would provide a temporary relief to Zimbabwe which has been battling with an erratic fuel crisis since 1999. Zimbabwe has tried in vain to secure sustainable fuel supplies from Libya, Kuwait, Sudan, Angola, Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, Iran, and other countries due to the country's poor credit rating. However, sources said there were still obstacles to the deal as a result of court developments regarding the suspects. Legal sources said it would be difficult to transfer the men because the extradition treaty between Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe was only formalised on April 23 - about 47 days after their arrest. "Basically you cannot apply legislation in retrospect," said Advocate Bryant Elliot of Gill, Godlonton and Gerrans legal firm. The sources also said the suspects had not committed any offence in Equatorial Guinea. They said Zimbabwe now wanted to extradite the alleged mercenaries to avoid possible embarrassment because their lawyers had indicated that the prisoners would expose their previous arms deals with ZDI, accused of gun-running and selling arms to shady groups. (Zimbabwe Independent)

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