Seized U.S. Plane: Zimbabwe's Probe Continues
Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2004
The Herald (Harare)
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March 10, 2004
GOVERNMENT yesterday revealed the nationalities of the 64 suspected mercenaries who were detained at the Harare International Airport on Sunday night after the owners of their plane had made false declaration of the cargo and crew.
They are 20 South Africans, 18 Namibians, 23 Angolans, two Congolese (DRC) and one Zimbabwean with a South African passport.
The Minister of Home Affairs Cde Kembo Mohadi said Zimbabwean security authorities became suspicious after the pilot had only kept the cockpit lights on with the rest of the plane in darkness.
"This was deliberate and it was clearly intended to hide the presence of the additional 64 passengers. On the discovery of the undeclared passengers, the plane was immediately grounded and the crew and passengers arrested," he said.
Cde Mohadi said the captain of the plane had advised the Harare tower that the plane was empty except for the crew of three and four loaders.
An advance team met the plane at the Harare International Airport and it consisted of one Simon Mann and two other men who had entered the country on March 5 this year.
The minister said initial investigations revealed that the plane was a former US Airforce aircraft which was sold to Dodson Aviation of the United States, a company he said had links to the US government.
"The plane recently flew to South Africa with an American crew which then swapped with a South African crew in Pretoria. It was at Wonderboom Airport that the mercenaries embarked and loaded their cargo," he said.
The plane is believed to have stopped at Petersburg airport before proceeding to Harare.
Cde Mohadi said Mann had initially visited the country in February this year together with one Nicholas du Toit.
The two referred to themselves as international technical consultants based in the British Virgin Islands.
"Simon Mann claimed to run a company called Logo Logistics while du Toit ran a company called Military Technical Services Incorporated. Both operated from the same address," he said.
The two made inquiries about the purchase of arms and ammunition and indicated they worked with a country in the Great Lakes to train Katangese rebels.
They later changed their story and claimed that they wanted weapons to protect a mining property in the DRC.
"Questions were raised as to why the two South Africans would want to buy weapons from Zimbabwe if the end use was legal. South Africa is a much bigger arms manufacturer," he said.
Cde Mohadi said a sinister motive was suspected and measures to monitor their plans until the arrest were instituted.
He said only the white component of the group seemed knowledgeable of the final destination and the purpose of the expedition.
It is believed a briefing on the mission was to be given to the rest of the members once the plane was airborne.
Cde Mohadi said investigations had also revealed that Mann was a former member of the British Special Airforce Service (SAS).
He said when the other members were arrested, du Toit was not there and had started arranging for the legal representation of the accused.
He said a Simon Witherspoon, a known South African mercenary who has operated in various countries in Africa, including Cote d*Ivoire, appeared to be the spokesman of the group.
He left the South African Defence Forces in 1989 to join the mercenary company, Executive Outcomes.
The minister said preliminary investigations indicated that Harare was not the final destination of the group as Bujumbura in Burundi and Mbuji Mayi in the DRC had been mentioned as the other destinations.
"Further investigations are underway and more information will be released to the public as it becomes available," Cde Mohadi said.
Government was working closely with other Sadc members on the issue.
Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe chief executive officer Mr Karikoga Kaseke said the flight plan of the impounded plane had a lot of inconsistencies and was very misleading and at times conflicting.
He said the owners of the plane said the plane had only three crew members and four loaders and carried cargo.
"This is the reason why we parked it in the cargo section. They did not tell us they had people inside," he said.
Mr Kaseke said the crew asked for a technical stopover for refuelling but it later emerged they had other plans.
He said the crew indicated they were flying to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Checks with flying records had also shown that the plane was flying very low which is a security risk, Mr Kaseke said.
South African Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Mr Aziz Pahad said in a statement his ministry would remain in close contact with its ambassador in Zimbabwe Mr Jeremiah Ndou to seek clarity on the circumstances surrounding the incident.
"Should the allegations that those South Africans on board are involved in mercenary activities prove true, this would amount to a serious breach of the Foreign Military Assistance Act which expressly prohibits the involvement of South Africans in military Conventional Arms Control Committee," he said.
Zimbabwe security authorities detained the United States-registered plane on Sunday night after its owners had made false declaration of its cargo and crew.
The capture of 64 suspected mercenaries in Harare on Sunday took a new dimension yesterday in South Africa, the United States, Britain, Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea.
This comes amid contradictory reports over the suspects* mission with Reuters news agency reporting that Equatorial Guinea had arrested a 15-strong "advance party" from the same group while the South African Press Association claimed that the suspected mercenaries were mining contractors travelling to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
SAPA news agency reported that a British company, Logo Logistics Ltd, was operating the impounded plane.
The South African news agency said the company sent it a statement in which it said: "We can make it clear that we have no current or intended business in Zimbabwe and certainly no illegal intentions against its government and people."
Logo told SAPA that what Zimbabwean authorities described as "military" items on board was in fact working equipment such as boots, pipe-bending and wire-cutting tools.
Logo said the aircraft, seized at Harare International Airport on Sunday, was recently purchased and still registered in the United States.
"There is no other link with the US," the company said.
However, authorities in Equatorial Guinea, a country in West Africa, said they had arrested a 15-strong "advance party" from the same group.
"Some 15 mercenaries have been arrested here in Equatorial Guinea and it was connected with that plane in Zimbabwe. They were the advance party of that group," Equatorial Guinea Information Minister Agustin Nse Nfumu told Reuters.
According to Reuters, the arrests come amid speculation among exiled opposition politicians in Equatorial Guinea that a coup was in the offing.
Charles Burrows, a senior executive of Logo Logistics, said most of the people on board were South African and had military experience, but were on contract to four mining companies in Congo.
"They were going to eastern DRC. They stopped in Zimbabwe to pick up mining equipment, Zimbabwe being a vastly cheaper place for such," he said.
Burrows, whose company is registered in Britain*s Channel Islands, denied any connection between the group detained in Harare and those arrested in Equatorial Guinea.
"I haven*t the foggiest idea of what they*re talking about," he said by telephone from London.
South African air traffic control said the plane had left Johannesburg on Sunday and made a stop at Wonderboom airport near Pretoria. From there it flew to the northern South African town of Polokwane, where it took on some 63 passengers and completed departure formalities.
Craig Partridge, a spokesman for South Africa*s Air Traffic and Navigation Services, said the plane had filed full flight plans showing it would travel to Harare and from there to Bujumbura in Burundi on Congo*s eastern border.
In Washington, the State Department said it had no indication that the plane was connected to the US government.
US Federal Aviation Administration records show the plane registered to Dodson Aviation Inc. based in Ottawa, Kansas. Dodson said it had sold the plane about a week ago to an African firm called Logo Ltd.
The white plane with a blue stripe across its body contained an assortment of military hardware that included a rubber boat (dingy), sleeping bags, loud hailers, hammers, sophisticated radio communication equipment, water proof boots and bolt cutters.
According to media reports from South Africa the plane was sold to a South African firm last week.
Jim Pippin the acting general manager for Dodson International, a subsidiary of Dodson Aviation Inc, which is headquartered in Ottawa, Kansas, said the Boeing 727-100 was sold to Logo Logistics.
"The plane was sold by Dodson out of the United States. The company took delivery of the plane over the weekend after it most likely flew out from Florida," Pippin told AFP from Wonderboom airport, just north of Pretoria.
Asked why an internet search showed the plane was still with a US registration in the name of Dodson, Pippin said: "They have not yet had time to do a re-registration."
AFP reports said the owner of a flying school at Wonderboom airport, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Boeing 727-100 landed there about 8.00am on Sunday.
"They asked me to move some of my aircraft because the jetstream from such a large aircraft could have damaged them," he said.
Peet van Rensburg, a spokesman for Wonderboom airport, confirmed that the plane was at the airport on Sunday, but also said he believed it proceeded to Polokwane.
Moses Seate spokesman for the South African Civil Aviation Authorities said the organisation would release a statement as soon as investigations are complete.
Reproduced From: www.herald.co.zw/
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