Thu, Nov 18, 2004 - Page 6 News List

There was no Equatorial Guinea coup plot: witness

DENIAL The only accused who had admitted to a role in a plot to oust President Teodoro Obiang told the court his captors had tortured him to extract a confession

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A suspected mercenary on trial in Equatorial Guinea for an alleged British-led coup plot involving Sir Mark Thatcher retracted his confession on Tuesday and said he had been tortured.

"There was no attempted coup d'etat in this country," the South African arms dealer Nick du Toit told a court in the capital, Malabo.

"I had to tell these people what they wanted. It was the only way to stay alive," Du Toit said.

Du Toit, wearing shorts and ankle shackles, said an arrested German had been killed by his captors. The authorities have insisted he died of malaria.

"We were tortured, we were roughly handled," Du Toit said.

"They killed Gerhard Merxz and I realized that if I did not work with these people they could continue killing us one by one," he said.

Du Toit blamed coup plans on Simon Mann, currently serving a prison sentence for related charges in Zimbabwe.

According to agency reports in Malabo, Du Toit claimed he had been approached about a possible coup by Mann, a former British special forces officer. But he had refused to take part.

"They chose the first South Africans they could get their hands on and they arrested them," he said of the authorities in Equatorial Guinea.

He changed his story as the trial of 19 suspected mercenaries resumed in the small west African country after an 11-week break to let prosecutors gather more evidence.

Du Toit had been the only one to admit a role in a plot to oust President Teodoro Obiang, which prosecutors say was backed by financiers keen for a stake in sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil producer.

Thatcher, son of the former British prime minister, is awaiting trial in South Africa on suspicion of helping to fund the scheme. He has denied involvement.

On Tuesday Du Toit's defense lawyer, Fabian Nsue Nguema, said eight new names, including Thatcher's, had been added to the list of accused in Malabo.

There were reports from Malabo that Obiang is seeking to have Thatcher extradited. But South African diplomatic sources say this is unlikely to happen. They intend to try him themselves in the new year and say they are confident of the quality of their evidence.

The Equatorial Guinea regime has accused two other London-based businessmen, Elly Calil and Greg Wales, of helping to fund the coup on behalf of an exiled politician, Severo Moto, now in Spain.

The Malabo regime has obtained bank and telephone records which appear to be consistent with much of Du Toit's original statements, and show large sums being transferred to him from Mann's offshore account in Guernsey at the time of the attempted coup.

Obiang, who has been accused of looting the country's new oil wealth, appears to have practically unlimited funds to spend on legal efforts around the world pursuing the alleged conspirators.

He has asked to see the British envoy Richard Wildash, who is high commissioner in Cameroon and accredited to Malabo, to demand an explanation of the UK government's confirmation last week that it had advance knowledge of the coup attempt.

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw last week confirmed in a parliamentary answer that his department had received reports of coup preparations in January, more than a month before the attempt was made. By that time, rumors were widespread in South Africa.

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