Britain was given highly detailed information of a plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea including names, dates and details of arms shipments several months in advance, it was claimed last night.
Two reports, in December 2003 and January 2004, of the planned attempt to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang from a former commander in South Africa's special forces were sent to two senior officers in British intelligence and to a colleague of Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, The Observer said. "The revelations of Britain and America's prior knowledge ... raise questions about whether they ignored UN conventions designed to protect heads of state against violent overthrow," the newspaper said.
The oil-rich African dictatorship, fresh from jailing 12 alleged mercenaries for the coup attempt, wants to take Britain and the US to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for failing to tell the regime of the impending coup attempt. Sources close to the Equatorial Guinea government said that the move follows the admission this month by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, that Britain had known "since late January 2004" of the plot.
The attempted putsch collapsed in early March, when Simon Mann, a former SAS officer, was arrested in Zimbabwe with a cache of weap- ons. He had just met an aircraft carrying more than 60 former members of South Africa's apartheid-era special forces. They were all taken into custody. A day later Nick du Toit and several other South Africans who used to serve in the country's undercover forces were arrested in Malabo, along with their Armenian aircrew, and charged with being the advance party for Mr Mann's group.
Johann Smith, the former South African special forces commander, gave a statement to lawyers last week acting for the African state. He said: I submitted a report in December 2003 to Michael Westphal of the Pentagon [in Mr Rumsfeld's department] ... I warned [the British Governnment] through two SIS [MI6] people I knew, and to whom I sent the report ... also in December 2003 to their personal email addresses." He also sent a more detailed report in January.
On Friday a court in Equatorial Guinea sentenced Mr du Toit and 11 others to long prison terms. According to reports from Malabo, the decision to spare the South African from execution is at least partly aimed at bolstering Equatorial Guinea's efforts to extradite Sir Mark Thatcher. The former prime minister's son was arrested in Cape Town in August and charged with helping to finance the coup attempt, but South Africa, like Britain, does not extradite suspects to countries that have the death penalty. The regime is also seeking to have Sir Mark questioned in a South African court.
Meanwhile, in London, The Guardian reported yesterday that a document quotes the plotters as fearing that any leak of Sir Mark's role would jeopardise the coup. The newspaper reports the memo saying: "If involvement becomes known, rest of us and project, likely to be screwed as a side-issue to people screwing him."
Equatorial Guinea's pursuit of Baroness Thatcher's son, whose legal battles in South Africa could last years, is the most visible sign of its resentment over what it sees as British interference. Although Mr Obiang has not echoed the claim of his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, that Britain was responsible for the coup attempt, he said it was funded by "enemy powers" and multinational companies, and thanked South Africa and Angola for warning him.
Equatorial Guinea has also issued international arrest warrants for British citizens and residents it accuses of involvement in the abortive coup, including Ely Calil, the Lebanese-born oil trader alleged to have launched the plot. Others on the list include David Hart, a millionaire former adviser to Lady Thatcher, British businessmen Greg Wales, Gary Hersham and David Tremain, and "JH Archer", the name on a leaked list of contributors to one of Mr Mann's companies. Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare has denied involvement, as has Mr Calil.
"It's not as if Britain was the only country that knew," a source said last week. "Everyone knew it was the stuff of gossip at diplomatic drinks parties ... Ironically, this affair has allowed two of Africa's most repulsive leaders, Robert Mugabe and Teodoro Obiang, to strut the stage."