Mon, May 16, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Zimbabwe releases 62 accused mercenaries

AP , HARARE, ZIMBABWE

Sixty-two accused mercenaries held in a top security prison in Zimbabwe for more than one year because of their alleged involvement in a thwarted coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea were released and deported to South Africa yesterday, their lawyer said.

Jonathan Samkange said prison authorities had confirmed the release of the men but he had not seen them before they left under heavy police escort.

The men arrived at the South African border just after 10am after an overnight bus journey from Harare, South Africa's ambassador to Zimbabwe, Jerry Ndou told the South African Press Association. South African radio reported that only eight of the men apparently had valid passports and that the rest were likely to be detained by immigration officials and transported to an undisclosed location.

The men, who all have South African nationality although some are of Angolan or Namibian origin, were arrested in March last year when their aging chartered plane landed in Harare on the way to oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Zimbabwean authorities charged them with plotting to overthrow the government.

During a lengthy trial last year, they denied being part of a coup plot and said they were bound for Congo to work security at a diamond mine. The Zimbabwean court convicted them of relatively minor immigration charges after prosecutors failed to prove more serious weapons and coup conspiracy charges.

The men completed a one-year prison sentence on Tuesday and were formally released Thursday, but were forced to stay in the Chikurubi prison compound because of bureaucratic bungling and apparent delaying tactics by the authorities.

The men's lawyers said Zimbabwean officials gave a series of excuses -- ranging from security concerns during the journey to South Africa to the need to buy film for identity pictures -- to delay their release.

Samkange said South African authorities were also to blame. He said some of the men had not been given valid passports after their own documents had expired while in jail.

"Their [the South African embassy] argument was that they had not been approached to provide passports," Samkange said on Saturday.

South African authorities had refused to intervene despite appeals from lawyers and relatives.

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