Coup pilot: SA govt stood back

Fresh claims of official support for an abortive bid to overthrow Equatorial Guinea’s head of state were made this week by one of the chief conspirators.

According to Free State pilot Crause Steyl, jailed coup leaders Simon Mann and Nick du Toit told him that South African authorities would not act against their mercenary group because, like the governments of Spain, Britain and the United States, they would have been ‘relieved” to see the dictatorial President Teodoro Obiang Nguema deposed.

Steyl’s startling claims are supported by a confession made by Mann shortly after his arrest in Harare on March 7 last year in which he says: ‘The South African [sic] has recently ... contacted Severo Moto stating their support for him and inviting him to meet the President of South Africa.”

This statement was excised from copies of the document leaked to the international and South African media at the time and Mann has since repudiated his confession, but Steyl told the Mail & Guardian this week that it was consistent with what he believed.

‘We knew from early December that the plan had been leaked and that the South African authorities knew something was going to happen, but it was not until shortly before we left that they sprang into action,” he said. ‘Up to that point, their attitude was one of watch and wait, and both Mann and Du Toit were convinced that if we pulled it off, Pretoria would be perfectly happy.”

However, he says, a telephone call ‘at the highest government level” some time in January or late February forced the National Intelligence Agency to set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the jailing of 69 soldiers of fortune in Zimbabwe and another group, led by Du Toit, be given ‘inhumanely long” prison sentences in Equatorial Guinea.

South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils revealed late last year that warnings from Pretoria to the governments of both Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea thwarted the coup attempt.

An ongoing investigation into the plan by the Scorpions has seen Steyl and two other mercenaries, Harry Carlse and Lowtjie Horn, given hefty fines and suspended sentences as part of plea bargains with the National Prosecuting Authority.

Steyl (39) was in charge of ferrying exiled opposition leader Severo Moto from the Canary Islands to the Equatorial Guinean capital of Malabo within 30 minutes of a successful coup led by Mann, a notorious British soldier of fortune.

This week, Steyl told Britain’s Channel 4 that Mark Thatcher, who left South Africa last week within hours of being fined R3-million for his role in the plan, ‘knew a lot more” about the coup plan than he has admitted.

‘His role had to be kept hidden, because we knew that as the former British prime minister’s son, if it became known, the media would have a field day,” said Steyl, who was directly involved in Thatcher’s funding, selection and testing of a helicopter for use as a combined gunship and air ambulance.

In a separate interview with the M&G, Steyl said he had ‘reason to believe” that a call ‘from Paris to Pretoria” galvanised South African authorities into action. The result was the impounding of a Boeing 727, with 63 former South African security force members on board and Steyl’s brother Niel at the helm, at Harare airport when it landed to pick up the weapons Mann and Du Toit had bought from Zimbabwe Defence Industries for the coup.

Mann also offered assurances that the plan had the backing of then Spanish prime minister Jose-Maria Aznar, who had offered Moto a home in exile and was keen to gain a foothold in the burgeoning offshore oil industry in the former Spanish colony that is Africa’s third-largest producer of crude.

When the plan was aborted following the arrests in Harare, Steyl remained confident that Spanish and other government influence would protect the mercenaries. This belief was boosted when he and British businessmen David Tremain, Greg Wales and Karim Fallaha were briefly detained in Las Palmas, Canary Islands, early on March 8.

‘We were questioned by Spanish intelligence agents for about 20 minutes, but after Moto spoke with them, they told us we were free to go, despite the fact that I had entered the Canaries without a passport or visa, and normally, would have been arrested as an illegal immigrant.”

Aznar has consistently denied all knowledge of the coup. Mann claimed in his confession that the former premier had at least three meetings with Moto while still in office and had promised to send ‘3 000 Guardia Civil to Equatorial Guinea as soon as he was established”.

‘I have been respectfully told that the Spanish government will support the return of Moto immediately and strongly,” Mann said.

Steyl said despite several postponements and setbacks, Mann’s group had no choice but to go ahead with the plan on March 7 ‘because we had to get the job done before the Spanish elections”.

While Steyl remains convinced that the coup plan was backed and financed by ‘powerful and important people” he now believes that he was misled, at least in part, by Mann and Du Toit regarding the full extent of support that could be relied on ‘if things went wrong”.

‘If we had got the job done, a lot of people in high places would have applauded, but when things went wrong, we were absolutely on our own. I suppose that’s just the way these things happen,” he said.

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