SA mercenaries free

2009-11-03 19:13

Malabo - Equatorial Guinea on Tuesday pardoned and freed South African mercenary Nick du Toit, Briton Simon Mann and three others who were jailed for a foiled coup plot in the West African nation in 2004.

"The amnesty is total. They are free," said Communications Minister Jeronimo Osa Osa Ekoro, who is also the government spokesperson. "They have already left prison and they have 24 hours to leave Guinea for the destination of their choice."

The small, oil-rich country's national radio earlier said Du Toit, Mann and three others had been granted amnesties by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has ruled over Equatorial Guinea since 1979.

The South African and British mercenary leaders were jailed for 34 years each for their role in a plot to oust Obiang Nguema as head of the former Spanish colony in the Gulf of Guinea.

"We understand this was a personal decision by the president of Equatorial Guinea on humanitarian grounds," said a British Foreign Office spokesperson in London.

South Africa said four of its citizens had been released and were being repatriated on Tuesday, as President Jacob Zuma was to begin an official visit to Equatorial Guinea.

Citizens at SA embassy

In a statement acknowledging the country's "humanitarian gesture", the foreign ministry in Pretoria said the four South Africans had been released into the custody of its embassy in Malabo, and arrangements were being made for their return.

A statement on the Ministry of Information website noted that Mann and the others were being freed "with the hope that the accused return to their families and receive appropriate medical treatment according to their age and health." It said the Ministry of Justice, Culture and Prisons proposed the pardon to the president, who granted "compassionate forgiveness."

Mann, a former British Special Air Service officer, 57, underwent hernia surgery last year and his state of health was one of the reasons for the amnesty, national radio said, announcing a November 2 decree.

The government announcement said Mann needed "regular medical treatment near his family" and that he had shown "credible signs of repentance and the desire to be reinserted in society".

Mann's family rejoiced at the amnesty.

"The family is absolutely delighted that Simon has been pardoned and is to be released shortly," the family said in a statement.

Profoundly grateful

"Everyone is profoundly grateful to the president and the government of Equatorial Guinea. The whole family is overjoyed at the prospect of finally welcoming Simon home after five-and-a-half long years away," it added.

A family spokesperson said Mann was due to arrive home "in the next few days".

Mann was arrested in March 2004 along with 61 other people when their plane landed in Zimbabwe. He spent four years in a Zimbabwean prison on firearms charges before being deported to Equatorial Guinea.

At his trial there, Mann implicated Mark Thatcher, son of Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in the plot to oust Equatorial Guinea's leader, who has run the country since a 1979 coup that ousted his uncle. The plot aimed to bring exiled opposition leader Severo Moto to power.

Brains behind coup attempt

Mann, who attended Britain's prestigious Eton school and Sandhurst military academy, was said to be the brains behind the coup attempt. He said that Spain and South Africa had backed the plot in his trial last year.

Du Toit and Mann had set up Executive Outcomes, which operated from Pretoria and helped the Angolan government protect its oil installations from rebels during that country's long civil war.

Mann, who lived in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia - also home to Earl Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana, and until recently Mark Thatcher - allegedly used the 'old boy' network to finance his deals.

Thatcher pleaded guilty in a South African court to financing the planned coup and was given a four-year suspended prison sentence.

Election campaign

The announcement of releasing the convicted mercenaries came as Equatorial Guinea opens its presidential election campaign on Thursday. The vote is set for November 29 and Obiang Nguema is seeking another mandate.

The former Spanish colony is Africa's third biggest oil producer after Nigeria and Angola, following the discovery of large offshore oil deposits in the early 1990s. The wealth has not reached the country's ordinary people.

Obiang Nguema in 1987 created the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE), which dominates the political apparatus and leads a coalition of nine parties among the 13 that are legally recognised.

Since multiparty politics was introduced in 1991, the PDGE has easily won all elections.