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Zimbabwe seizes US plane

Zimbabwe military officials hold up wire cutters in this video frame grab aboard a U.S. registered cargo plane which was impounded on Sunday evening in Harare

The cargo plane impounded by Zimbabwean officials

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By Agencies

ZIMBABWE has seized a U.S. - registered cargo plane with 64 suspected mercenaries of various nationalities and a cargo of "military material," Home Affairs (Interior) Minister Kembo Mohadi said on Monday.

"A United States of America-registered Boeing 727-100 cargo plane was detained last night at about 1930 hours (12:30 ET) at Harare International Airport after its owners had made a false declaration of its cargo and crew," Mohadi said in a statement.

"The plane was actually carrying 64 suspected mercenaries of various nationalities," he said, adding that an investigation had also revealed "military materiel" in the cargo.

Mohadi said fuller investigations were under way to establish the identity of the men and the nature of their mission. There was no word on where the airplane arrived from, or whether Zimbabwe was its destination.

Mohadi said a fuller statement would be released "in due course."

A US State Department official said on Monday. "It's not a US plane. It is not a US registered aircraft right now," the official said on condition anonymity.

The State Department official here said the mystery aircraft was not US-registered and had not been carrying any US nationals.

"It is not a US government or a US commercial aircraft as far as we know. I understand that at one point back in the 1970's someone may have owned it in the US but it hasn't been a US aircraft since the early 80's," the official explained. "I have no idea who owns it. There is no US citizen on board," the official said as the mystery over the plane's ownership and crew continued to deepen

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has been engaged in a bitter war of words with both the United States and Britain, which have accused him of a political crackdown following his victory in the 2002 presidential elections, which the opposition and Western observers said were flawed.

Mugabe in turn accuses Western powers of attempting to undermine his government in retaliation for his controversial seizure of white-owned farms for distribution to landless blacks.

Once one of the most prosperous countries in southern Africa, Zimbabwe now faces regular shortages of food, fuel and foreign exchange as well as soaring rates of inflation and high unemployment.

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