Johannesburg — South African Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma confirmed on Wednesday that the plane held by Zimbabwean authorities and an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea were linked.
"Indeed there was a link between the plane and Equatorial Guinea," Dlamini-Zuma was quoted as saying by the South African news agency (SAPA).
Zimbabwean authorities on Sunday detained a Boeing 727 carrying 20 South Africans, 18 Namibians, 23 Angolans, two Democratic Republic of Congo citizens and one Zimbabwean with a South African passport, Zimbabwean police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena, told IRIN on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Equatorial Guinea announced on Tuesday that it had arrested 15 alleged mercenaries, including several South Africans, who, it claimed, were an advance party for the 64 men being held in Zimbabwe.
Dlamini-Zuma confirmed on Wednesday that at least seven South Africans had been arrested in Equatorial Guinea, and one had "spilt the beans".
"I know one man has addressed the diplomatic corps and explained what funny things they were doing up there," she said. News agencies on Tuesday quoted Equatorial Guinea's Minister of Information, Agustin Nse Nfumu, as saying that the leader of the group, a South African called "Mick", had allegedly confessed to a plot to kill President Obiang Mbasogo.
The South African Department of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that any South African found to be involved in mercenary activities was in "serious breach" of the Foreign Military Assistance Act, which prohibits the involvement of South Africans in military activities outside the country without due authorisation of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee.
At least two of the alleged foreign merecenaries held by Zimbabwean authorities have been linked to the security firm Executive Outcomes (EO), which folded in 1999.
Bvudzijena said the plane was met at the airport by Simon Mann, one of the founders of EO, and two other men who had entered the country on 5 March this year.
"Another known mercenary, Simon Witherspoon, who is also a former member of Executive Outcomes, is among those arrested and is acting as a spokesperson for the group," he added.
Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge told a news briefing in the capital, Harare, on Wednesday that the alleged mercenaries could face the death penalty.
EO shot to fame during the 1990s when it assisted the Angolan government in fighting the rebel movement UNITA, and helped the Sierra Leone authorities deal with the Revolutionary United Front. The firm included former personnel of the notorious 32 Buffalo Battalion of the South African special forces and Civil Cooperation Bureau, which was responsible for the death of several anti-apartheid activists.
EO closed shop when South Africa's Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act came into effect in 1999.
The Zimbabwean authorities said the impounded plane, allegedly a former United States Airforce aircraft, had been sold to an American concern, Dodson Aviation, which had leased it out to Logo Logistics Limited.
Zimbabwe state television broadcast footage of what it called "military material" aboard the plane, including camouflage uniforms, sleeping bags, compasses and wire cutters - but no guns.
In a statement sent to SAPA, Logo Logistics said that "contrary to some reports they (the people on board the aeroplane) are contracted to provide a range of services to mining clients, including logistics, support services, asset and human security, and communications".
The statement was not sourced to an individual, and a telephone contact number in the United Kingdom was answered by an electronic message, the news agency reported.
A spokesperson for the detained men said they had been flying from South Africa to guard mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but associates have declined to name the employers of the men.