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By Mduduzi Mathuthu

OFFICIALS within Zimbabwe's intelligence services and the army knew about the plane that has been seized in Harare after the government claimed it was carrying mercenaries, New has learnt.

Highly placed sources told New that the plane was due to pick-up an assortment of military weaponry after a deal was clinched between the Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) and an unnamed third party.

Sources say all the equipment found on the aircraft was bought from Denel, a South African arms supplier.

The operator of the plane said Tuesday it was bound for the Democratic Republic of Congo for mine security work.

"They were going to the eastern DRC. They stopped in Zimbabwe to pick up mining equipment, Zimbabwe being a vastly cheaper place for such," said Charles Burrow, a senior executive of Logo Logistics Ltd which chartered the plane. He admitted almost all those on board had military experience.

In Zimbabwe, 'mining equipment' is a euphemism for military hardware as it is the same tactic used by President Mugabe's government to cloak its heavy involvement in the DRC since war broke out.

His account appeared consistent with intelligence information indicating the plane was on its way to West Africa, perhaps headed for a threatening coup in Equatorial Guinea, a small former-Spanish colony wedged between Cameroon and Gabon.

Its capital, Malabo, is on an island off Cameroon's coast. Oil was recently discovered in its waters.

Meanwhile, Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has declared a state of emergency and put the army on alert. At least 15 suspected mercenaries have been arrested after a widespread clampdown on foreign nationals, the government said Tuesday.

"Some 15 mercenaries have been arrested here in Equatorial Guinea and it was connected with that plane in Zimbabwe. They were the advance party of that group," Information Minister Agustin Nse Nfumu told Reuters.

Sources say ZDI boss Col Tshinga Dube was furious after overzealous intelligence officials blocked the smooth transfer of the equipment to the aircraft and informed President Mugabe who ordered that it should be grounded.

"When Mugabe learnt that the plane was registered to an American company he saw it as an opportunity for a propaganda coup....It was the perfect chance to hit back at the United States," a senior government official privy to the matter said.

Sources at the South African embassy in Harare said President Thabo Mbeki was furious at the developments and believed "President Mugabe could have handled the whole thing better".

Mbeki has been trying to establish closer relations with President Obiang and promote stability in Equatorial Guinea but now believes his reputation is in tatters after South Africa was placed firmly at the centre of the storm, the sources said.

SABC radio reported the plane was registered to a South African company; Zimbabwe claimed it was US-registered. This was denied by the US State Department, but a South African aviation expert said the aircraft's registration number, N4610, was definitely American.

An initial check of US Federal Aviation Administration records showed N4610 to be registered to Kansas-based Dodson Aviation Inc., but a Dodson official said it sold the plane about a week ago to an African company called Logo Ltd.

ZImbabwe's Home Affairs (Interior) Minister Kembo Mohadi said on Monday: "The plane was actually carrying 64 suspected mercenaries of various nationalities."

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.

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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