(CNSNews.com) - Zimbabwe has accused the U.S., Britain and Spain of being behind a plot to overthrow the government of another African country, and said a group of suspected mercenaries in its custody could face execution.
President Robert Mugabe's government said the men were planning to oust the president of Equatorial Guinea, a small, oil-rich former Spanish colony in West Africa which has endured brutal rule, coups, bankruptcy, nepotism and electoral fraud since independence in 1968.
Home affairs minister Kembo Mohadi told a press conference in Harare that one of the 67 men it has arrested "has revealed that they were aided by the British secret service, the American Central Intelligence Agency and the Spanish secret service."
The conspiracy was apparently aimed at replacing the government of Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo with one headed by an opposition figure currently in exile in Spain.
Mohadi said the Western intelligence agencies had persuaded armed forces and police chiefs in Equatorial Guinea to cooperate with the coup plotters, in exchange for positions in the new government.
The Western agencies had also provided the group with a satellite communication system, he alleged.
In Equatorial Guinea itself, authorities have separately arrested a group of 15 men accused of being part of the coup plot, which officials there claimed involved unnamed multinational companies and "enemy powers."
The allegations by Zimbabwe came three days after authorities seized a plane at Harare International Airport and arrested all 64 men onboard. Three men who had come to the airport to meet the plane were also detained.
Zimbabwe, which has long accused the U.S. and former colonial power Britain of trying to topple the autocratic Mugabe, charged that the plane was registered in the U.S., prompting denials from the State Department.
It subsequently emerged that an aviation firm in Kansas had sold the Boeing 727 to what it described as a "reputable" South African company a week earlier.
The plane had flown from South Africa to Zimbabwe, apparently stopping to refuel - or according to the Zimbabwean government, to buy weapons - before heading for a destination further north.
Zimbabwe's allegations contrast the claims by an executive of the firm that bought the plane, Logo Ltd., which maintains that the men were in fact security guards who were heading to mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Zimbabwe says the men in custody are mostly from South Africa and two southwest African nations, Namibia and Angola.
The State Department has confirmed that no Americans were among those arrested.
Briefing diplomats in Harare, foreign minister Stan Mudenge said the arrested men would "face the severest punishment available in our statutes, including capital punishment."
Pretoria, meanwhile, has hinted that it may wash its hands of the 20 South Africans among the group, leaving them in the hands of a regime frequently accused of torture and interference in judicial processes.
Foreign ministry spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said South Africa did not have any extradition treaties that cover "such issues."
"Depending on the outcome of the investigations, they will have to stand trial where they are alleged to have committed the offences," Mamoepa said.
The ministry also issued a statement saying that "should the allegations that these South Africans were implicated in mercenary activities prove true, it would amount to a breach of the Foreign Military Assistance Act, which expressly prohibits the involvement of South Africans in such activities abroad without due authorization."
The legislation was passed in 1998 in a bid to curb the activity of private military companies, a wide-ranging sector including "mercenary" guns-for-hire and firms helping to secure mining and other foreign interests in conflict zones.
South Africans involved in past mercenary activity have tended to be former members of the apartheid-era armed forces, mostly white Afrikaners.
Equatorial Guinea is a small country of around half a million people, comprising an island off the West African coast and an enclave on the mainland.
The discovery of rich oil reserves has boosted the country's budget enormously over the past five years, and Equatorial Guinea is now the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, after Nigeria and Angola.
Foreign oil companies operating there include U.S. giants ExxonMobil Corp., ChevronTexaco Corp., and Marathon Oil Corp.
According to the State Department, relations between the U.S. and Equatorial Guinea with the increased U.S. investment presence have been "positive [and] constructive."
Washington last year re-opened a limited-function embassy in the capital, Malabo, after an eight-year absence, and the president, Obiang, has made regular visits to the U.S. for meetings with senior government and business leaders.
See Earlier Story:
US Plane Used by 'Mercenaries' in Zimbabwe Sold to South Africans (Mar. 9, 2004)
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