Alleged mercenaries on their way home

May 15, 2005

All 61 South African alleged mercenaries were allowed into South Africa by immigration officials at the Beitbridge border post this afternoon. Only three men were allowed into the country at first. The rest waited until after 3pm. Reports of their time of arrival at the border differ between about 7am and 10am.

Nkosana Sibuyi, the home affairs department spokesperson, said the delay was necessitated by checking that their South African passports were authentic. "This is part of the normal course of our work. Like any other country, we had to check and ensure that the men's documents were genuine. This is standard procedure," said Sibuyi.

One 'mercenary' a Zim national
Earlier reports had said there were 62 men in the group, but Sibuyi said the number was 61 as the other man was left behind because he was a Zimbabwean national.

Marge Pain, wife of Kenneth Pain who was among the first three released, said she could not believe the ordeal had come to an end. She requested that her husband be left alone so that he could rest and for the family to do a bit of catching up. Karen, the fiancee of Errol Harris, one of the 61, described her re-union with her husband-to-be as "very emotional". "He is not sick or anything. He has just lost a lot of weight," she said, echoing Pain's concern.

One man was taken to a nearby hospital upon the group's arrival at the border as he was suffering from tuberculosis.

Alwyn Griebenow, the men's lawyer, had arranged for a bus from Polokwane to transport the group and their families from Beitbridge. The men were released from the Chikurubi maximum security prison outside Harare last night, where they spent a year after being convicted of violating Zimbabwe's immigration, aviation, firearms and security laws.

Men detained longer than anticipated
The charges were related to an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. The men were kept at Chikurubi for a few more days after their sentences expired on Tuesday.

Briton Simon Mann, who is the suspected mastermind behind the alleged plot, is still behind bars in Zimbabwe, serving a four-year jail sentence. His fellow countryman Mark Thatcher, son of Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, was fined R3 million by the Cape Town High Court in January after pleading guilty to contravening South Africa's anti-mercenary legislation. Thatcher was accused of partly financing the alleged plot to install opposition leader Severo Moto in Malabo.

The two pilots who flew the men's aircraft into Harare in March last year will be released in two months. The plane was forfeited to Zimbabwe.

The early release of the men in March after a reduction of their sentences was thwarted by an appeal by Zimbabwean attorney-general Sobuza Gula-Ndebele. He argued that early releases only applied to Zimbabweans. Leave for the appeal was granted, but it has not been heard yet.

The group was arrested at Harare International Airport when they apparently landed to refuel and pick up military equipment. Zimbabwean authorities said they were on their way to join 15 other alleged mercenaries - including eight South Africans - arrested in Equatorial Guinea around the same time.

The men said the equipment found in their possession was to be used to guard diamond mines owned and operated by JFPI Corporation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The group in Equatorial Guinea was convicted and given long prison sentences for attempting to overthrow the country's long-time dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.