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Oil wealth lured E Guinea coup plotters

By Richard Bilton
BBC News, Malabo

Slum in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
Despite vast oil reserves, most people in Equatorial Guinea live in poverty
At first glance it does not look like a place worth fighting over.

Equatorial Guinea is a hot and humid state tucked away in West Africa. Its capital, Malabo, is run down - a mixture of battered colonial buildings and slums.

But look out to sea and there is a glimpse of Equatorial Guinea's changing fortunes.

Oil tankers sit in the bay waiting to be filled. A military boat moves slowly between them.

There is money here now and the Equatorian government wants to protect it.

Rich target

This country is Africa's third biggest producer of oil. It has vast reserves.

In 2004 it had the world's fastest-growing economy. It might not be reflected in the life of the average citizen - but it was enough to attract the attention of people with plans for a coup.

Simon Mann has accepted he was part of that coup. "Not the main man" is what he told an interviewer earlier this year.

Map

The prosecutors in Equatorial Guinea disagree. They claim he was at the heart of the operation: the mastermind of a plot that involved 64 mercenaries.

He was arrested in Zimbabwe in 2004. He had landed in Harare with a plane full of mercenaries and was looking to buy weapons.

Mann served four years there before, earlier this year, he was extradited to Equatorial Guinea.

So for the last four months he has been held in the country it is alleged he wanted to take over.

He is waiting for a trial which will be overseen by those he was involved in trying to replace.

He is locked up in the notorious Black Beach prison. It is just a mile down the coast from the presidential palace that the plotters are supposed to have intended to storm.

Equatorial Guinea wants its revenge.

Thatcher wanted

The authorities say Simon Mann will get a fair trial and a fair sentence. The prosecutors want a 32-year term.

The death penalty was only ruled out because of the terms of Mann's extradition. But they are not content with just Mann.

Simon Mann
Simon Mann says he was involved in the plot, but was "not the main man"

Though they see him as the "mastermind", it is clear that Equatorial Guinea will continue to pursue those involved in the plot.

I met Jose Olo Obono, the state prosecutor.

He pulled out from his drawer a wad of documents. Closer inspection showed one had been signed by Sir Mark Thatcher.

In fact, it was a contract for the purchase of an air ambulance - something Sir Mark has never denied.

He has already received a suspended sentence in South Africa for unwittingly funding the plot - but has said he had no knowledge of the coup.

Mr Obono made it clear that they saw Sir Mark Thatcher as important in their case and would seek help from the international community to question him.

Few benefits

What difference does all this make to the average Malabo resident? Well, very little.

Police controls here are very tight. The cameraman and I were held for several hours simply for filming part of the capital without permission.

And most local people are nervous about discussing the case. The one man who would talk to us, when asked about Simon Mann, said: "I can't talk about politics."

Few people here have benefited from the oil. The country ranks near the bottom of a UN human development index.

The money pours in but the place looks and feels poor. It was that wealth that brought the attempted coup here.


SEE ALSO
Profile: Simon Mann
10 Sep 04 |  UK
Country profile: Equatorial Guinea
30 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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