Revealed: how Britain was told full coup plan
· Foreign Office kept silent over oil plot
Antony Barnett and Martin Bright
Sunday November 28, 2004
Britain was given a full outline of an illegal coup plot in a vital oil-rich African state, including the dates, details of arms shipments and key players, several months before the putsch was launched, according to confidential documents obtained by The Observer.
But, despite Britain's clear obligations under international law, Jack Straw, who was personally told of the plans at the end of January, failed to warn the government of Equatorial Guinea.
The revelations about the coup, led by former SAS officer Simon Mann and allegedly funded in part by Sir Mark Thatcher, son of the former Prime Minister, will put increasing pressure on the Foreign Secretary to make a full statement in Parliament about exactly what the UK government knew of the putsch and when they knew it.
This weekend in a statement, the Foreign Office said: 'We do not comment on intelligence issues. But ministers and officials in the FCO acted promptly on receipt of relevant information.' Last week, The Observer reported that Straw ordered a change to evacuation plans for British citizens in Equatorial Guinea after receiving news of the coup.
Officials added that Straw and African minister Chris Mullin were personally told of the plot on Friday 30 January.
In December 2003 and January 2004 two separate, highly detailed reports of the planned coup, from Johann Smith, a former commander in South African Special Forces, were sent to two senior officers in British intelligence and to a senior colleague of Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, according to the documents seen by The Observer .
The new claims raise questions about Straw's recent parliamentary answers in the Commons. In August officials flatly denied any prior knowledge of the plot, but earlier this month Straw was forced to admit that the government was informed in late January. On 17 November he admitted his department had received 'confidential information' on the plan, but played down its significance, saying in a parliamentary answer that the reports contained nothing that 'significantly' added to rumours of a possible coup reported in the Spanish media.
However, the documents seen by The Observer gave names of many of the South African mercenaries involved in the coup who have now been sentenced for their roles. Most significantly, the January report warned: 'These actions are planned to take place in mid-March 2004.' The alleged plotters were arrested on 7 March en route to Equatorial Guinea.
The reports passed to UK intelligence and marked strictly confidential concluded: 'Knowing the individuals as well as I do, this timeline is very realistic and will provide for for ample time to plan, mobile, equip and deploy the force.'
The revelations of Britain and America's prior knowledge of the plan to topple the oppressive regime of President Teodoro Obiang raises questions about whether they ignored clear UN conventions designed to protect heads of state against violent overthrow. There have also been claims that western government were keen to see regime change in the oil-rich state because it suited their strategic and commercial interests.
Smith last week gave a statement to lawyers acting for the government of Equatorial Guinea. He had been tipped off about the coup by two former military colleagues who were recruited to overthrow Obiang by Nick du Toit, a mercenary who was last week given a 34-year jail sentence for his role in the coup,
In his statement, seen by The Observer, Smith said: 'I considered it my duty to warn the authorities in the US and England because some of their nationals might be killed. I submitted a report in December 2003 of what I had discovered to Michael Westphal of the Pentagon [in Rumsfeld's department]. I expected the US government to take steps to warn Equatorial Guinea or to stop the coup. This was also my expectation as regards the British government which I warned through two SIS [Secret Intelligence Service, i.e. MI6] people I knew, and to whom I sent the report by email, also in December 2003 to their personal email addresses.'
In January Smith received more detailed information about the plot from former colleagues. He said: 'After preparing and sending my December report I received further information ... and put this in a second report which I sent by email to the same people as the first one: Michael Westphal of the US and British SIS contacts.'
Smith gave his statement after being detained in the state's capital, Malabo, on the order of the country's national security officer.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Ancram said he will be calling on Straw to make a full statement in parliament.
'This raises more questions regarding the accuracy of the information given by the Foreign Office,' he said. 'The more they fail to give straight answers, the more suspicions are raised.'
Smith, who claims he has received death threats since the plot was thwarted, said there was no response from British or US authorities to his warnings: 'The only thing that happened was that the US authorities froze the Equatorial Guinea money with the Riggs Bank in USA.'
Westphal, the Pentagon adviser who received Smith's report, is one of Rumsfeld's most trusted lieutenants. The former marines officer is currently the Pentagon's deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence in charge of special operations and combating terrorism and was previously responsible for African affairs.
Source: The Observer
Also see Mark Thatcher charged in alleged coup plot and US, UK Knew Of African Oil Coup Plot, Kept Silent