Tue, Jan 04, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Witness reveals Thatcher's coup involvement

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The star witness against Sir Mark Thatcher has revealed the most detailed allegations yet of his role in a West African coup attempt, including claims that he helped test a helicopter for the operation.

Coup pilot Crause Steyl, in a plea-bargain in South Africa, has testified to a hitherto unknown string of meetings involving Sir Mark -- only son of the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher -- as an "investor."

This development comes as Simon Mann, the jailed former SAS officer alleged to have masterminded the coup attempt in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, has launched a vigorous counterattack against his accusers, claiming he was tortured into confessing to a leading role in the plot.

Mann, who was jailed for seven years in Zimbabwe in November on charges connected to the coup attempt, attempted to exonerate Sir Mark from any involvement in the botched plot in an affidavit drawn up by his lawyers and seen by the Guardian.

But Steyl, a South African pilot convicted last month of violating South Africa's foreign military assistance act, has agreed to testify against Sir Mark in South Africa in return for escaping a hefty jail term.

Steyl has confirmed to the South African authorities that he was recruited to provide air support by Mann, who was arrested at Harare airport along with 70 mercenaries allegedly bound for Equatorial Guinea.

He has told the authorities that he was introduced to Sir Mark by Greg Wales, the London-based businessman who has been accused of a central role in the plot, at Lanseria airport, north-west of Johannesburg, in December 2003.

He said that when he was introduced to Sir Mark it was explained: "He [Thatcher] would finance the helicopter for Equatorial Guinea."

He claims to have subsequently met the son of Lady Thatcher on at least two further occasions with Mann, including in Cape Town when Sir Mark, who is a qualified pilot, is said to have personally tested a helicopter due to be used in the coup attempt.

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