Jack Straw Admits Brits Knew of Eq.Guinea Coup Plot
Antony Barnett and Martin Bright
Sunday November 14, 2004
The British government knew about the alleged plot to overthrow the President of Equatorial Guinea at least five weeks before a group of mercenaries was arrested in March for planning the coup.
In a dramatic admission, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, confirmed that the government had been 'informed' of the alleged coup plot 'in late January 2004'. On 7 March a group of mercenaries, led by an Old Etonian and former SAS officer, Simon Mann, was arrested in Zimbabwe. They were charged with plotting a putsch.
Straw's disclosure is the latest twist in a remarkable tale that has dragged in several high-profile figures. In August, Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of the former British Prime Minister, was arrested in South Africa after being accused of helping to finance the coup to remove President Obiang. He faces criminal charges that he broke the country's anti-mercenary laws. Thatcher denies any knowledge or involvement in the plot.
Straw's admission came in a parliamentary answer last week in the Commons to a question tabled by the Tories' shadow foreign secretary, Michael Ancram.
Until now, cabinet ministers have denied any prior knowledge of the attempted African coup which would be illegal under international law.
In August, The Observer reported accusations that an individual who was intimately involved in the alleged plot against Obiang was claiming British officials had advanced knowledge of the plot. Foreign Office officials dismissed the claims, issuing a categorical denial that Britain had 'prior knowledge of the alleged plot'.
At the time of the March arrests, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe accused Britain, the US and Spain of plotting a coup in the oil-rich West African state. The suggestion was that the coup was an attempt to gain control over Equatorial Guinea's new-found oil wealth that has turned the small country into Africa's third-biggest oil producer. These allegations have been strongly denied by foreign governments.
Yet the admission by Straw that the government had been informed of the coup plot several weeks in advance has raised questions about the role played by Britain. Senior opposition politicians are demanding to know who informed ministers and what they then did with the information received.
A source close to the government of Equatorial Guinea described Straw's admission as being 'very surprising'.
He said that President Obiang would be seeking an immediate explanation from Straw as to why no warning was passed to the government of Equatorial Guinea, a country with which Britain has full diplomatic relations.
He added: 'This is particularly surprising in view of the fact that a number of British citizens and residents of the UK appear to be central to the conspiracy to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea.'
As well as Mann and Mark Thatcher, other British-based individuals linked to the plot include Ely Calil, a Lebanese millionaire oil trader who lived in Chelsea. Calil, who has temporarily moved to Lebanon, denies any involvement in bankrolling the coup, which allegedly aimed to replace Obiang with an exiled politician, Severo Moto.
Senior detectives at Scotland Yard are investigating claims by ministers from Equatorial Guinea that the plot was largely planned and financed in Britain.
Ancram said: 'Jack Straw's reply raises very significant questions which require answers. Who informed the government, exactly when and what did ministers do with this information?'
Ancram has tabled several further parliamentary questions to get to the bottom of this. His concerns were echoed by Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman.
He said: 'This reply characteristically raises more questions than it answers. Not only do we need to know what steps did the government take to warn the government of Equatorial Guinea, but what steps they took to ensure that British citizens did not become involved.'
This weekend the Foreign Office refused to explain the background to Straw's answer arguing that it was 'sub judice'. On Tuesday, the trial begins in the Equatorial Guinean capital Malabo of one of the alleged coup leaders, Nick du Toit.
The prospect of a diplomatic row between Britain and Equatorial Guinea could put in jeopardy more than £1 billion of British contracts.
27.08.2004: Thatcher family had bags packed ready to flee to US, police say
27.08.2004: Exiled leader in Spain denies any link to coup attempt
26.08.2004: Thatcher and a very African coup
27.08.2004: Press review: Thatcher arrest
26.08.2004: Equatorial Guinea: Oil rich, dirt poor
29.07.2004: Ex-SAS officer in 'coup plot' admits arms charges
21.07.2004: 70 go on trial in Zimbabwe over alleged coup plot
19.03.2004: Suspect in coup plot dies
25.08.2004: Q&A: the Equatorial Guinea 'coup'
26.08.2004: Key players: mercenaries, money and political connections
26.08.2004: Sir Mark Thatcher: Scratcher, the millionaire fixer
Source: UK's Guardian