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Equatorial Guinea Coup Plot Deepens - 2004-09-02

African oil and security analysts increasingly believe there was a coup plot foiled in the tiny oil-rich nation of Equatorial Guinea earlier this year, despite claims by the opposition that it was an elaborate set-up by the government to get rid of opponents. More details are emerging about the plot, which is throwing high-profile British financiers and retired white mercenaries into a tangled judicial web stretching across the continent.

The main trial related to the coup plot was postponed in Equatorial Guinea's capital, Malabo, this week after prosecutors said they needed more time to investigate new evidence.

This includes the possible role of Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He was arrested last week in South Africa, where he resides, on charges of helping to finance the alleged plot. He is now under house arrest.

Proceedings in a third country, Zimbabwe, have already led to the conviction of a former business associate of Mr. Thatcher, retired British special forces operative Simon Mann for trying to illegally buy weapons.

Shortly after Mann's arrest with more than 60 foreigners, mostly South Africans, aboard a Boeing 727 last March in Harare, a smaller group of foreigners was arrested in Equatorial Guinea.

An editor for the London-based investigative newsletter, Africa Confidential, Thalia Griffiths, says mounting evidence supports the allegations these men were plotting a coup and not preparing, as they claim, to provide security at Congolese mines.

"In Africa, there is always conspiracy theories or in this case an anti-conspiracy theory, but it does look increasingly as this was a genuine plan to overthrow the Equatorial Guinean government," he says.

The anti-conspiracy theory is being put forward by the self-styled Equatorial Guinea government in exile, the political movement of opposition leader Severo Moto, who lives in Spain. He declined a VOA request for an interview, but a message on his website says the charges against Mann relate only to an attempt to purchase weapons.

As such, the statement continues, it appears to be entirely without foundation why a small group of men are being tried in Equatorial Guinea. Mr. Moto's website says the judicial proceedings over the alleged plot are an Equatorial Guinea government-led sham to jail his supporters and associates. Both Mann and Mr. Thatcher are friends of Mr. Moto.

Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang, in power since he had his uncle executed in 1979, accuses Mr. Moto of organizing the plot with the backing of Mr. Thatcher and other wealthy British businessmen. He also accuses British, American, and Spanish intelligence agencies.

While he agrees there was probably a coup plot against President Obiang, Tom Cargill of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, says implicating Western governments may be going too far.

"There has been, as you say, these conspiracy theories swirling around about various governments and you know the soldiers being off the coast of Equatorial Guinea from western governments and all the rest of it. But these things always happen after coups in Africa because there seems to be a kind of bias on the part of commentators that these things can't have a largely African internal dynamic. There always seems to be a kind of need to kind of blame or have external forces as the real motivating factor, but I don't know that there's really any clear evidence to suggest that's the case at this stage," he says.

Analysts agree that potential gains from oil revenues are likely to be behind the plot. Ian Gary is an Africa oil expert for Catholic Relief Services, a U.S.-based group calling for a more equitable sharing of oil revenue.

"Equatorial Guinea has presented a really tempting and soft target for people or factions that would like to take over the government because it has become so rich on oil revenues over the last few years so in this case it's hard to see that oil did not play a role in the coup attempt," he says.

So far, no member of President Obiang's cabinet or members of his family, many of whom hold high government positions, has been charged with complicity in the coup. But the president's half-brother, who serves as chief of Equatorial Guinea's secret service, has recently signed a deal with the alleged commander of the advance team, 48-year-old former mercenary Nick du Toit, to build a paramilitary force. Mr. du Toit is on trial for his alleged role in the plot.

But, whether true or not, Ollie Owen from the London-based World Markets Research Center, says the reports of the plot have had little effect on Equatorial Guinea's booming oil sector.

"I do not think it is going to significantly affect anything that is in place already. Most of those energy sector investments are offshore, therefore they are fairly well insulated from the day to day fluctuations and that, but we will have to see how it pursues," he says.

Equatorial Guinea is now Africa's third largest oil producer behind Nigeria and Angola. But, despite the growing oil revenues, the poverty rate in Equatorial Guinea remains high.

The government of President Obiang has been accused by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, of running a corrupt regime guilty of numerous human rights violations.