Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - The fate of 67 alleged mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe is now in the hands of the Harare justice system, which may bring treason charges - punishable by death - since most African countries lack national legislation dealing with mercenary activities.
Much remains unclear about the episode, which began when a plane carrying 64 men was seized at the Harare International Airport last Sunday. Emerging reports suggest the arrests may have prevented an attempt to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea, a small, oil-rich country in western Central Africa.
A separate group of 15 men - an "advance party," according to government officials - has been arrested in Equatorial Guinea.
Government ministers in Harare have said the detainees implicated U.S., British and Spanish intelligence agencies in the alleged conspiracy to remove Equatorial Guinea president Teodoro Obiang, who himself came to power in a 1979 coup.
The State Department has denied the allegation.
Despite the focus on Equatorial Guinea, some Zimbabwean officials have also speculated that the group intended to oust that country's autocratic president, Robert Mugabe. Security has been stepped up in both Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea.
The men in custody in Zimbabwe are mostly South Africans, Namibians and Angolans. Also under arrest are three men who reportedly met the plane at Harare airport, including a former member of Britain's elite SAS regiment.
It remains unclear what charges they will face when they are brought to court, possibly on Friday, but treason seems likely, as Zimbabwe - like all African countries bar South Africa - has no law on mercenary activity.
The African Unions does, however, have a convention outlawing mercenary acts in Africa - the Convention for Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa, first adopted by the Union's predecessor, the Organization of Africa Unity.
Lesser charges could be brought, such as contravening aviation or immigration laws, but a comment by Zimbabwe's foreign minister that the men could face the death penalty has sparked speculation that more serious charges are being considered.
The Washington-based International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) is a voluntary membership body for private military companies (PMCs).
IPOA president Doug Brooks said the Zimbabwe incident demonstrated the need for legitimate private security companies to differentiate themselves from "uncontrollable individuals."
The act of overthrowing governments was "very much a rogue actor activity," he said.
PMCs can range from old-style guns-for-hire to private sector firms providing security to oil or mining concerns in conflict zones.
A spokesman for the company that bought the plane earlier this month from a Kansas aviation firm has denied the coup plot allegations.
Charles Burrows, a senior executive at Logo Logistics, in a press statement disputed reports that the plane had been carrying military material saying although most men aboard the plane had military experience "they were on contract with four mining companies in Congo."
Zimbabwe state media earlier showed footage of items such as boots, sleeping bags, compasses and bolt cutters, but no firearms.
See earlier story:
Zimbabwe Says US, Others Behind Alleged Mercenary Coup Plot (Mar. 10, 2004)
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