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Last Updated: Monday, 16 May 2005, 07:40 GMT 08:40 UK
Fighters on wrong side of history
Men in Zimbabwe
The men were jailed together with the bosses who recruited them
The 62 suspected mercenaries just released from jail in Zimbabwe are people whose lives have been determined by being trapped on the wrong side of history.

For 30 years, they have been caught up in the twists and turns of international politics, from the Angolan civil war to an abortive coup in Equatorial Guinea.

The common theme throughout these events has been South Africa's changing relations with its neighbours.

Most of the men are originally from Angola, where in the early 1970s three rival liberation movements were battling against Portuguese colonialism and against each other.

One of these movements, the MPLA, formed the Angolan government when the Portuguese withdrew in 1975.

South Africa had already sent troops into Angola in support of the other two movements, Unita and the FNLA.

Battalion

When the South African Defence Force (SADF) withdrew from Angola early in 1975, it took with it many of the Angolans who had been fighting alongside the South Africans, and who now found themselves as renegades in a country controlled by the MPLA.

These men were drafted into a separate battalion of the SADF, known as 32 Battalion or Buffalo Battalion.

They received military training in South Africa, and were deployed during the SADF's later incursions into Angola.

The arrival of democracy in South Africa and the end of its military involvement in Angola left the men of 32 Battalion in limbo.

Originally housed in the abandoned military base at Pomfret - where some of their families still remain - most of the men have gone elsewhere to seek work.

Recruitment

But as old soldiers, they all have at least one skill - and it is a skill that can be exploited in a country like South Africa, which until recently had a reputation as a breeding-ground for mercenaries.

Prisoners in Zimbabwe
The men were recruited for their fighting experience
During the 1990s, a number of former officers of the old SADF set themselves up providing "security services" to governments and private individuals both in Africa and as far away as Iraq and the Caucasus.

The line between "security" and mercenary activity was seldom clear. The Angolans' military experience means that mercenary bosses looked to the veterans of 32 Battalion as a source of recruits.

The Angolans who landed at Harare airport in March 2004 were, officially, on their way to the Democratic Republic of Congo to provide security at a mine.

Plot

A Zimbabwean court found them guilty of violating immigration and firearm laws.

But they were suspected of being on their way to participate in a plot to overthrow President Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.

Their release is the result of a reduction in sentence following a successful High Court appeal, and the leaders who recruited them for the Equatorial Guinea operation remain in captivity.

Yet it is still possible that the men could face new charges under new South African laws which were introduced specifically to help the country shake off its mercenary-friendly reputation.

South African officials have said arrangements are being made for the repatriation of 32 Battalion veterans and their families to Angola if they so choose, now that the war in Angola is over.

But the old soldiers men have been away for nearly three decades, and their children know no home other than Pomfret. It is unlikely that post-war Angola will be able to offer them anything better than what they have at the moment.

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