Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Equatorial Guinea: a coup? mercenaries?

The government of Equatorial Guinea announced that it has arrested 15 mercenaries, characterized as an "advance force" for the 64 people detained in Zimbabwe.
[Information Minister Agustin Nse] Nfuma said the suspected mercenaries arrived in the tiny nation ... in December.

He said one of the men had said the group was acting on behalf of Ely Calil, a Lebanese businessman close to Severo Moto, self-proclaimed president of a so-called Equatorial Guinean "government-in-exile" in Spain.

Sources close to Calil, authorised to speak to Reuters, said on Tuesday he denied involvement and believed he was being made a scapegoat because of his friendship with Moto.

Moto was arrested in 1997 in Angola on suspicion of plotting a coup in Equatorial Guinea and expelled to Spain.

Moto told Reuters on Tuesday that he was committed to peaceful change in his country and that he believed the arrests were an attempt to whip up fear ahead of legislative elections next month.
Here is what I understand of the story ...

On Sunday, Zimbabwe impounded a US-registerd cargo plane saying it was carrying 64 "suspected mercenaries".
[Zim] State-run TV broadcast footage of a white plane with the tail number N4610. Inside the aircraft, the station showed two satellite telephones, radios, blue backpacks, sleeping bags, hiking boots, an inflatable raft, paddles, bolt cutters and what appeared to be a can of Mace.

No weapons were shown, but the station said officials were still going through the cargo section.
That excerpt is from a day-old report ... I've found no reports that weapons have been found since

At some point (I can't quite identify when) ... the story became that those 64 men were on their way to Equatorial Guinea

The US company listed as the plane's owner said it had recently sold the aircraft to a South African company, Logo Logistics Ltd.

Charles Burrows, an executive with Logo Logistics, said the plane was on its way to the Democratic Republic of Congo and only stopped in Zimbabwe to pick up mining equipment. The men were to provide security at four mines. He confirmed that most of the people on board were South African and had military experience. He also denied any connection between the group detained in Harare and those arrested in Equatorial Guinea.

An unnamed senior US official is quoted by Reuters as saying that the alleged mercenaries are believed to include South Africans, Angolans and Congolese.

Moving across the Continent to Equatorial Guinea ...

Over the weekend, the BBC reported that foreigners were being rounded up in Equatorial Guinea over fears that a coup attempt was in the offing.
It [newspaper report] said the embassies of Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana and Nigeria in the capital Malabo were surrounded in order to prevent anyone seeking refuge in them.

A number of foreigners staying at hotels were also reportedly arrested.
This isn't the first such action in the country. In 2002, fears over another alleged coup plot led to the arrest of 68 people, many of them key opposition figures.

Equatorial Guinea has one of the worst human rights records in Africa (here and here) ... and the country is one of the poorest. But since oil was dicovered in the mid 90-s, the country's fortunes have been changing (at least for the powerful).

In October 2003, the US reopened its embassy in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. The move was characterized as an effort to better serve the American oil workers in the country.
Washington closed its embassy in Equatorial Guinea in 1995 ostensibly for budget reasons, though the last US ambassador, John Bennett, had left under a cloud in 1994, having criticized the human rights situation and been accused of practicing witchcraft.

Observers have linked the reopening of the mission -- for which Malabo had lobbied intensely over the past three years -- to the start of the flow of offshore oil in 1996.

Equatorial Guinea is now ranked third among African oil producers behind Nigeria and Angola, with several US oil companies operating in the country including the world leader ExxonMobil.
CBS's 60 Minutes filed a report on Equatorial Guinea back in November ... read it here.

Also handy ... this BBC country profile.