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Thatcher Pleads Guilty to Coup Involvement

Briton Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has pleaded guilty to being involved in a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea last year. The plea was part of a deal with the authorities.

Thatcher pleaded guilty to being "unwittingly involved" in the coup attempt. By doing so, he was able to avoid a jail sentence and instead received a suspended term of four years in jail and a fine of $505,000. If he fails to pay the fine within two days, he will be sent to jail, with five additional years tacked onto the original sentence.

Thatcher, who was arrested last August and immediately granted bail, has also agreed to cooperate with the authorities in further investigations relating to the failed coup in Equatorial Guinea last March.

In a brief statement following his court appearance in Cape Town, Thatcher said he agreed to the plea bargain because he was prepared to do anything to be reunited with his family. His wife and two sons are currently living in the United States. Former Prime Minister Thatcher said in a statement that she is "very relieved."

In the written plea agreement, Thatcher said he agreed to charter a helicopter for his close friend and coup leader Simon Mann for a business venture in West Africa. He said he later began to suspect it would be used in mercenary activity, but he nevertheless, failed to withdraw from the deal.

Mann was last year convicted with 67 others in a Zimbabwe court on emigration and firearms charges. They were arrested trying to purchase weapons. The group was en route to Equatorial Guinea and had stopped in Zimbabwe to pick up the weapons in their chartered aircraft. In a separate development, Mann's seven-year sentence was Wednesday reduced to four years.

Last year, a court in Equatorial Guinea handed down sentences of up to 34 years to five South Africans and six Armenians for their role in the same plot.

Thatcher is not new to controversy. In 1986, questions were raised in the British parliament when his company was awarded a lucrative contract in Oman shortly after his mother, then British Prime Minister, visited the country on official business.

In 1994, parliament again investigated reports, which he denied, that he was involved in arms sales to Iraq and Saudi Arabia, also during Mrs. Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister.

And, after settling a civil racketeering lawsuit in the United States, Thatcher moved to Cape Town in 1998, where he soon came to the attention of the authorities for alleged loan shark activities. The case never came to court.

The authorities in Equatorial Guinea still want to question Thatcher, and have also said they may seek his extradition. Thatcher has asked the High Court of Appeals to review a lower court ruling that he appear in a local court to answer questions sent by investigators from Equatorial Guinea.

Many South Africans have reacted with disbelief and anger to the news. Radio talks shows have been deluged with callers who say Thatcher should have been forced to go to trial and face the full wrath of the law. However, the chief prosecutor in the case says he thinks the deal was appropriate.