ANGOLA’s rebel Unita movement has given a qualified assurance it will not execute captured South African “mercenaries” after an appeal for clemency by Deputy President Thabo Mbeki.
At least two South Africans working for the Pretoria-based company Executive Outcomes — whose personnel ostensibly train soldiers of the MPLA government — fell into Unita hands in Angola’s northern diamond-rich province Lunda Norte on July 15 when their Angolan government aircraft was shot down by the rebels.
Executive Outcomes has refused to name the captured men — a pilot and an administrator — saying their families did not want their identities known. It disputes Unita claims that “about five” men were travelling in the light aircraft and that three survivors were being held.
The company’s managing director, Eben Barlow, said this week the downed aircraft was a Swiss Pilatus turbo-trainer, which carries only two people. He said it had been shot down while on a routine flight to a training camp, and the Angolan government and Executive Outcomes had launched a massive search. “If we find them, we will get them out.”
Fears for the men’s safety were based on previous statements by Unita that it would “publicly execute” any South African mercenaries it captured.
After Mbeki’s appeal Unita’s Lisbon representative Jaema Bento told the Mail & Guardian this week: “They will not be executed if the South African government accedes to get them (Executive Outcomes personnel) all out of Angola.”
Pressed on Mbeki’s appeal, he conceded: “He (Mbeki) asked for it. We have already said we will not kill them.”
Bento would not reveal the captives’ whereabouts, but said he believed they were well. He said their release would be subject to negotiations and that “as far as I know” this was the first time Unita had captured Executive Outcomes personnel.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Jacques Malan sketched a less rosy scenario. “We did make contact with Unita, but to get that information filtered down to the ground where they are being held can be difficult, even for Unita.
“It is hellishly difficult to assist these people; that’s why we previously warned them, ‘If you get into trouble, you’re on your own’.”
He said Foreign Affairs was awaiting feedback from Unita after a high-level meeting of its leaders in Huambo, the rebel headquarters, this week.
Meanwhile, Unita radio claimed this week to have killed 50 Executive Outcome personnel in battles in Lunda Norte between July 18 and 25, and a total of more than 125 foreign mercenaries in the past 15 months.
Barlow dismissed this as propaganda and said that only 15 of his employees had died — of malaria, in training accidents and in Unita attacks.
* Two Cape Town diamond divers were released by Unita on Tuesday after 16 days’ captivity. Douglas van der Merwe and Riaan Richter were captured by the rebel movement apparently while working a riverbed on the border between Zaire and Angola.
Van der Merwe’s father, CP van der Merwe, said a “private person” had secured their release after the families were advised “it’s best to do it the African way”. He said the two men were safe in Zaire.