The UK was given a full outline of an illegal coup plot in a vital oil-rich African state, including the dates, details of arms shipments and key players, several months before the putsch was launched, according to confidential documents obtained by The Observer.
But, despite Britain's clear obligations under international law, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was personally told of the plans at the end of January, failed to warn the government of Equatorial Guinea.
The revelations about the coup, led by former UK Special Forces (SAS) officer Simon Mann and allegedly funded in part by Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former Prime Minister Margaret That-cher, will put increasing pressure on the UK's foreign secretary to make a full statement in parliament about exactly what the UK government knew of the putsch and when they knew it.
This weekend in a statement, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said: "We do not comment on intelligence issues. But ministers and officials in the FCO acted promptly on receipt of relevant information."
Officials added that Straw and African minister Chris Mullin were personally told of the plot on Friday Jan. 30.
In December last year and January, two separate, highly detailed reports of the planned coup, from Johann Smith, a former commander in the South African Special Forces, were sent to two senior officers in British intelligence and to a senior colleague of Donald Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary, documents seen by The Observer say.
The new claims raise questions about Straw's recent parliamentary answers. In August officials denied any prior knowledge of the plot, but this month Straw admitted that the UK government was informed in late January.
However, the documents gave the names of many of the South African mercenaries involved in the coup who have now been sentenced for their roles. Most significantly, the January report warned: "These actions are planned to take place in mid-March 2004." The alleged plotters were arrested on March 7 en route to Equatorial Guinea.
The revelations of Britain and the US' prior knowledge of the plan to topple the oppressive regime of President Teodoro Obiang raises questions about whether they ignored clear UN conventions designed to protect heads of state against violent overthrow. There have also been claims the western governments were keen to see a regime change in the oil-rich state because it suited strategic and commercial interests.
Smith last week gave a statement to lawyers acting for the government of Equatorial Guinea. He had been tipped off about the coup by two former military colleagues who were recruited to overthrow Obiang by Nick du Toit, a mercenary who was last week given a 34-year jail sentence for his role in the planned coup.
In his statement, seen by The Observer, Smith said: "I considered it my duty to warn the authorities in the US and England because some of their nationals might be killed. I submitted a report in December 2003 of what I had discovered to Michael Westphal of the Pentagon [in Rumsfeld's department]. I expected the US government to take steps to warn Equatorial Guinea or to stop the coup. This was also my expectation as regards the British government."