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Zimbabwe: Leader of Suspected Mercenaries Pleads Guilty to Weapons Charge - 2004-07-28

A former British army officer Simon Mann faces up to 10 years in jail in Zimbabwe after he pleaded guilty Wednesday to violating security laws. All but three of 70 suspected mercenaries accused by the government of plotting against Equatorial Guinea have pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

Mr. Mann pleaded not guilty to charges of violating firearms laws, but his lawyer Jonathan Samkange entered a guilty plea to a lesser charge of attempting to buy arms of war.

Of the remaining suspects, 67 had pleaded guilty earlier to charges of breaking immigration and aviation laws when they landed at the airport.

All were convicted and await sentencing.

The plea came on the second day of a trial in a makeshift courtroom in the grounds of Zimbabwe's maximum security prison, where Mr. Mann and 69 men he allegedly hired, have been detained for nearly five months.

The men were arrested at Harare International Airport on March 7 after their aircraft landed to refuel and allegedly collect weapons. Mr. Mann and two others had entered Zimbabwe legally a day before, to buy weapons from the state-run Zimbabwe Defense Industries.

The defendants maintain they were buying arms for a mine guarding job in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But the prosecution charged Mr. Mann, a former member of an elite British military unit, and the others were plotting to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. A separate group of 15 men is being held in Equatorial Guinea on similar charges.

The 70 men in Zimbabwe, including Mr. Mann, were all carrying South African passports at the time of their arrest but originally came from Angola, Namibia, DRC, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Most of them had served in the army during South Africa's wars in Angola and Namibia.