Page last updated at 17:38 GMT, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Pardoned Briton's joy at return

Simon Mann: "I am very, very grateful for this pardon"

Former British soldier Simon Mann has expressed his joy at being freed from prison in Equatorial Guinea and said it is "the best early Christmas present".

Mann, 57, arrived at Luton airport after being pardoned and released from a 34-year jail term in the African state for his part in a coup plot.

In a statement, he said it was "the most wonderful homecoming".

He also said he was looking forward to meeting his son Arthur - born while he was in prison - for the first time.

Mann's spokesman, Ian Monk, read a statement from him in which he said he had spent "five-and-a-half tough years" in prison "much of it in solitary confinement".

"There hasn't been a moment in the last five-and-a-half years when I have not dreamt of being back in Britain with my family," he said.

"I'm hugely grateful to President Obiang for releasing me. It's the best, best early Christmas present I could have possible ever imagined."

'A pawn'

Mann was arrested in Zimbabwe in March 2004, along with 63 others, after they flew in from South Africa.

They were suspected of being mercenaries intent on toppling Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Map of Equatorial Guinea

Mann served three years in a Zimbabwean jail before being extradited to Equatorial Guinea in 2008 where he was tried and convicted.

He admitted conspiring to oust President Obiang, but said he had only been "a pawn" in the plot.

On Tuesday the president pardoned and released him on humanitarian grounds, citing his health - Mann had a hernia operation last year.

Before leaving Equatorial Guinea, Mann, who used to live in Beaulieu, Hampshire, expressed regret for his part in the foiled coup.

"It was wrong and I'm happy that we did not succeed," he said.

'Face justice'

The former SAS soldier also reiterated his claims that London-based Lebanese millionaire Ely Calil and Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, had been involved in the plot.

"I am very anxious that Calil, Thatcher and one or two of the others should face justice," he said.

Sir Mark, who now lives in southern Spain, was fined and received a suspended sentence in South Africa in 2005 for unknowingly helping to finance the plot.

He said on Tuesday he was "delighted" to learn of Mann's release. Mr Calil, who denies any wrongdoing, also said he was "thrilled" at the news.

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed they are investigating whether any offences relating to the coup plot could have been committed in the UK.

I think, to an extent, Simon Mann was becoming an embarrassment to the government
Shadow justice minister Henry Bellingham
A friend of Simon Mann

Shadow justice minister Henry Bellingham, who is a friend of Mann, told the BBC he understood those negotiating on his behalf had sought to convince President Obiang that releasing the Briton could help his country's international standing.

"Equatorial Guinea has come quite a long way in terms of rebuilding its reputation as being a pariah state... and it wants to have a close relationship with Britain, with America," he said.

"Obviously, I think, to an extent, Simon Mann was becoming an embarrassment to the government," he said.

Mr Bellingham said he did not "for one moment condone" what Mann had done, but had argued he "deserved a fair hearing" which he did not get in either Zimbabwe or Equatorial Guinea.

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