MORE details emerged this week of the murky arms deal in which Zimbabwe Defence Industries sold a large consignment of weapons to the alleged mercenaries currently held in Harare. This raises
potentially embarrassing questions about the state arms manufacturer’s role in their capture.
It is also understood that the South African Secret Service had been monitoring the men’s movements ahead of their arrival in Harare.
While there has been no public admission that ZDI sold the weapons to trap the alleged mercenaries, the firm’s involvement in the Sri Lankan arms disappearance case in 1997 has fuelled suspicions that this latest episode could be another deal gone bad.
A ship carrying a ZDI consignment of 32 398/81mm mortar bombs disappeared in 1997 allegedly on its way to Sri Lanka with arms for that country’s army under a US$6 million government-to-government deal. However, investigations into the fate of the vessel Stillius Limasol, which was supposed to be carrying the consignment of mortars and other military hardware, revealed that there was no ship registered by that name.
Claims that the Tamil Tigers, who are fighting for a separate homeland, intercepted the weapons, failed to stick. In the end officials in Colombo accused senior officers in the Sri Lankan army and ZDI of arranging the disappearance in order to defraud the Sri Lankan government. ZDI denied the charge.
Questions are being raised over the sale of arms to the 67 suspected mercenaries arrested at Harare airport on Sunday, March 7, which official sources say was part of the trap.
The Zimbabwe Independent has now established that ZDI – which supplies army uniforms, field equipment and ammunition – sold the mercenaries a consignment of 61 AK-47 assault rifles and 45 000 rounds of ammunition, 10 Browning pistols and 500 x 9mm rounds of ammunition, and 20 PKM light machine guns plus 30 000 rounds of ammunition.
It also sold 100 RPG7 anti-tank weapons, 2 x 60mm mortar tubes, 80 x 60mm mortar bombs, 1 500 hand grenades and 20 Icarus flairs.
Acting Attorney-General Bha-rat Patel said this week that the suspects would be charged, among other things, with violating the Firearms Act for buying arms without an end-user certificate. He also said they would be charged under the Public Order and Security Act for illegal possession of weaponry which is not covered under the Firearms Act.
It is understood government hatched the trap after Simon Mann, one of those detained, came to Zimbabwe in February with colleagues trying to buy arms.
The trap was said to have been finalised when Mann and associates came back on March 5 to wait for the now-impounded plane that was due to collect their consignment two days later.
Their movements were monitored, the Independent has been told, by South African intelligence officers who booked into a local hotel on March 5. They trailed Simon Mann and two colleagues who arrived in Zimbabwe the same day to await the plane.
The plane was impounded on March 7. It is understood to have arrived in South Africa from Sao Tomé and Principe the day before. On March 7, the plane departed Lanseria airport in Johannesburg at 6:55am with four crew members and headed for Wonderboom in Pretoria.
It left Wonderboom at 4:07pm with 67 passengers heading for Polokwane where it landed at 4:35pm. It then departed Polokwane at 6:24pm for Harare where it landed at 7:30pm before it was seized.
Mann and his associates, who are among the detained suspects, were already in the country to collect arms they had bought from Zimbabwe Defence Industries.
The South African intelligence officers were at the airport when the plane was impounded. Sources say they did not stop the plane in South Africa because they wanted the suspects to fall into the trap. The ZDI arms consignment was the evidence they needed.
Home Affairs minister Kembo Mohadi, who has said the mercenaries were going to Equatorial Guinea to stage a coup against President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, yesterday said he could not clarify ZDI’s role.
“It has been said in the press that they (the alleged mercenaries) had arranged to buy arms from ZDI but for details on that you can contact ZDI,” Mohadi said.
Persistent efforts to get comment from ZDI yesterday failed as all senior officials were reportedly out of their offices.
On reports that some ZDI officials had been arrested over the arms deal with the mercenaries, Mohadi said: “I can’t confirm that. I haven’t received any such reports.”
Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi also refused to comment on the issue.
“The Minister of Home Affairs is handling those matters,” he said.
Analysts said the transaction between ZDI and the alleged mercenaries raised potentially embarrassing questions.
“Certainly it does raise some questions and it might expose something about the activities of ZDI that the government will regret later,” Richard Cornwell of South Africa’s Africa Security and Analysis Programme told Reuters.
Research Associates’ Herman van der Linde said: “There is no way there were going to be able to sell arms to anybody without an end-user certificate or at least some government backing”.
President Thabo Mbeki is said to have been instrumental in exposing the alleged coup against Obiang. Mbeki met with Obiang in Pretoria on December 1 and the two discussed a range of bilateral issues, including security matters.
Their gathering came at about the same time as Mann’s reported meeting with Equatorial Guinean exiled rebel leader Severo Moto and Western intelligence agents over the coup plot.
It is understood Mbeki and Obiang discussed the coup plot and Mbeki agreed to monitor the movement of possible mercenaries.