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Zimbabwe to Charge Alleged Mercenaries - 2004-03-11


The Zimbabwe government says the men detained Sunday for alleged involvement in a mercenary operation will be charged in court in the coming days.

Senior state prosecutor Bharet Patel says the men could face charges under aviation and immigration laws. But violation of those laws does not carry the death penalty, which other officials have said the men could face.

Zimbabwe says the men were part of a group attempting to stage a coup d'etat in Equatorial Guinea. The Equatorial Guinea government has made the same charge, and says it has arrested 15 more alleged mercenaries who had already arrived in the country.

The men held in Zimbabwe were detained at Harare International Airport on Sunday, after arriving from South Africa. Their plane, a Boeing 727, is being held at a military air base.

The Zimbabwe government says all of the men have military backgrounds. Most are believed to have served in the former South African Defense Force, during the apartheid era.

One of many mysteries in the unfolding saga surrounds weapons, which Zimbabwean officials say the men were planning to pick up after their plane touched down in Harare.

Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi says the leader of the group, Simon Mann, a former member of Britain's elite Special Air Services, had arranged to buy weapons in Zimbabwe. The minister says Mr. Mann claims the weapons were going to be used in security operations at mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mr. Mohadi named Zimbabwe Defense Industries as the planned source of weapons for the group. The company is cash-strapped and was last week included in a package of sanctions against Zimbabwe imposed by the United States.

Whatever the real reason for their trip, the men face an uncertain future. Diplomats say South Africa may seek the extradition of the South African men in the group, to face charges under the Foreign Military Assistance Act, which makes it a criminal offense for South Africans to fight in foreign wars without government permission.

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