I'm really fascinated with the story of the planeload of mercenaries detained in Zimbabwe. First of all, the details read like the opening of a good solid commercial thriller, which is to say in it an interesting story in its own right regardless of its relative political import -- there's a book in this for someone -- and also because this is a story better covered in the blogs than in the mainstream media.
Here's the Reuters version from two days ago:
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe has seized a U.S.-registered cargo plane which the government says carried 64 suspected mercenaries of various nationalities and a cargo of military gear but no weapons.
The Boeing 727-100 aircraft was impounded on Sunday evening at Harare International Airport "after its owners had made a false declaration of its cargo and crew," said Home Affairs (Interior) Minister Kembo Mohadi in a statement.
"The plane was actually carrying 64 suspected mercenaries of various nationalities," Mohadi said on Monday, adding an investigation had also found military material.
Authorities said no formal charges had been made.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters: "We have no indication this aircraft is connected to the U.S. government."
The Pentagon also denied a connection with the aircraft. "It isn't one of our planes and not any of our people," said Pentagon spokesman Army Major Paul Swiergosz.
Mohadi said investigations were under way to establish the identities of the passengers, who Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. said were mostly white, and the nature of their trip.
There was no word on where the airplane arrived from, or whether Zimbabwe was its destination.
Mohadi said a fuller statement would be released later.
Reporters were taken aboard the plane to examine the cargo, which included a rubber dinghy, military uniforms, wire cutters, armour, compasses and other military hardware, said chief police spokesman Assistant Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena.
"There was a false declaration by the captain and also investigations are leading in that direction that these are possible mercenaries," Bvudzijena said.
Footage on state television showed a white plane with the figure N4610 printed on the body. Several army personnel were shown sifting through equipment including what appeared to be army boots, communication radios and sleeping bags.
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration records show N4610 to be a 727 plane registered to Dodson Aviation based in Ottawa, Kansas. Dodson Aviation said it sold the plane in question about a week ago to an African company called Logo.
Atrios picked up the story and it didn't take long for his commentors (me included) to Google out a fair amount of hard information about the plane, information that it may be assumed that the State Department and Pentagon folks are aware of:
First of all, N4610 isn't just any random former US cargo plane. Rather it is a specific military plane with a specific history which is relatively easy to find out on the web. As is widely reported, the plane was registered to Dodson Aviation, Inc. of Ottawa, Kansas. Jetliners.com lists the plane as operated by the U. S. Air Force. It also gives additional information: that the plane is a specific type of Boeing cargo plane, a C-22B, and it gives an additional identification number 83-4610. Airlink has a nice factsheet with a picture of the type of plane, a Boeing 727-100 modified for air national guard support missions. There are only eight, with serial numbers 83-4610 (tail # N4610, the plane in question), 83-4611 (N290AT, orig. tail # N4611, destroyed 1993), 83-4612 (orig. tail # N4612, currently in use by the US Air National Guard 201st), 83-4613 (orig. tail # N4613, registered to Cargo Aircraft Leasing Corp., Coral Springs, FL), 83-4614 (C-GOFA, orig. tail # N4614,registered in Canada), 83-4615 (orig. tail # N4615, currently in use by the US Air National Guard 201st), 83-4616 (currently in use by the US Air National Guard 201st), and 83-4617 (OB-1465 , orig. tail #N4617, registered outside the US) [See corrections and refinements in my 3/13/04 post]:
The C-22B, a Boeing 727-100, is the primary medium-range aircraft used by the Air National Guard and National Guard Bureau to airlift personnel.
The C-22B's unique arrangement of leading-edge devices and trailing-edge flaps permit lower approach speeds, thus allowing operation from runways never intended for a 600-mph (Mach 0.82) aircraft.
The aircraft has heated and pressurized baggage compartments - one on the right side forward and the second just aft of the wheel well. The two compartments provide 425 cubic feet (12.75 cubic meters) of cargo space. The fuselage also incorporates a forward entry door and hydraulically opened integral aft stairs in the tail cone.
The flight controls consist of a hydraulically powered dual-elevator control system with control tab to assist during manual operation. Hydraulically powered rudders use two main systems with a standby system for the lower rudder. The ailerons also are powered by dual-hydraulic systems. They have balance tabs on the outboard and control tabs on the inboard, which assures adequate maneuverability in the event of a total hydraulic failure. The flight spoiler systems assist ailerons and also function as speed brakes.The aircraft's tricycle landing gear consists of a dual-wheel nose gear, left and right dual-wheel main gear, and a retractable tail skid which prevents damaging the aircraft in case of overrotation. Nose wheel steering is hydraulically powered and controlled by a steering wheel to approximately 78 degrees in either direction. Fuel is contained in three main tanks inside the wing center section. Rapid pressure fueling and defueling is accomplished at the fueling station on the right wing. The total fuel capacity is approximately 50,000 pounds (22,500 kilograms) of JP-4. Fuel may be dumped down to 35,000 pounds (15,750 kilograms) from all tanks.
The C-22B requires four crew members and three or four in-flight passenger specialists for passenger service and safety. The avionics package includes one UHF and two VHF radio altimeters, variable instrument switching and two Collins FD-108 flight directors. A third vertical gyro and an additional VHF transceiver are available in case of failure of the primary systems.
The C-22B was introduced by the airline industry in 1963. It proved to be a major innovative design with its three Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbofan engines, one on each side of the rear fuselage and the third in the tail cone. Currently, there are three C-22B's in use, all assigned to the 201st Airlift Squadron, District of Columbia Air National Guard.
Primary Function: Passenger transportation
Builder: Boeing Co.
Power Plant: Three JT8D-7 turbofan engines
Thrust: 14,000 pounds each engine
Length: 133 feet, 2 inches (40.3 meters)
Height: 34 feet, (10.3 meters)
Wingspan: 108 feet (32.7 meters)
Maximum Take-off Weight: 170,000 pounds (76,500 kilograms)
Maximum Payload: 20,000 pounds (9,000 kilograms)
Maximum Speed: 619 mph (Mach 0.82)
Range: 2,000 miles (1,739 nautical miles)
Endurance: 5.5 hours
Crew: Pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, flight mechanic, and three or four in-flight passenger specialists
Unit Cost: No longer available.
Date Deployed: 1963.
Inventory: Active force, 0; ANG, 3; Reserve, 0.
Point of Contact
National Guard Bureau, Public Affairs Office; 2500 Pentagon, Washington DC 20310-2500; DSN 225-3454 or (703) 694-3454.
The plane in question was on display at the Andrews AFB, Department of Defense Open House on May 15, 1999. The records of the airshow suggest that it was also assigned to the 201st Airlift Squadron, District of Columbia Air National Guard.
The State Department disingenuous claim -- endlessly repeated in news stories around the globe -- is that they have " no indication this aircraft is connected to the U.S. government." After a nearly forty-year relationship with the US government, you would think the poor old plane would deserve better! [Actually, it seems to have been a nearly 20 year relationship. See corrections and refinements in my 3/13/04 post] Peculiarly, of the eight planes of its type, it is the only one not currently in use by the Air National Guard, listed with the site I consulted as operated by the U. S. Air Force.
I give you more than you really wanted to know about the plane, (some of which, prized from unfamiliar databases, is bound to have a mistake somewhere) since it is most definitely "connected" with the U. S. Government. Why couldn't the State Department just come out and say, "It used to be ours, but we sold it"? Why lie when the truth would do?
And why didn't reporters check out the tail number in more detail rather than just endlessly repeating the government line?
This morning, Josh Marshall remarked on something that has also been raised by Atrios's commentors: that the head of the South African branch of Dodson seems to be something of a shady character with a history of arms trading:
Dodson Aviation of Kansas has a South African subsidiary, Dodson International Parts SA Ltd (According to their website, "Dodson International Parts SA (Pty) Ltd is the African division of United States based companies Dodson International Parts Inc. and Dodson Aviation. The company was established in 1998 and is based at Wonderboom Airport, Pretoria.") And it was from this subsidiary's hangar at an airport just north of Pretoria that the aforementioned mercenaries boarded the plane.
Now, here's where this gets a little murky.
I wanted to find out more about Dodson International Parts SA Ltd. What I found something out about was a company that sounded very similar: a South African company called Dodson Aviation Maintenance and Spare Parts.
They're also in the airplane business.
Not exactly the same name. But remember, the South African company is the subsidiary of two American companies, Dodson Aviation and Dodson International. If these aren't the same company, or closely related companies, I'd figure they often get confused for one another.
In any case, here's what I found about Dodson Aviation Maintenance and Spare Parts.
South Africans Providing Training in Liberia
187. Fred Rindel a retired officer of the South African Defence Force and former Defence Attach to the United States, has played a key role in the training of a Liberian anti-terrorist unit, consisting of Liberian soldiers and groups of foreigners, including citizens of Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Niger and The Gambia.
188. The panel interviewed Mr Rindel extensively. Rindel was contracted as a security consultant by President Charles Taylor in September 1998, and training started in November 1998. The contract included consultancy services and strategic advice to convert Charles Taylor's former rebel militia into a professional unit. The Anti-Terrorist Unit is used in Liberia to protect government buildings, the Executive Mansion and the international airport, and to provide VIP Security and the protection of foreign embassies. The numbers trained were approximately 1200. Because of negative media attention, Rindel cancelled his contract in Liberia in August 2000.
189. In 1998, ECOMOG identified a plane, registration number N71RD, owned by a South African company, Dodson Aviation Maintenance and Spare Parts, as having carried weapons to Robertsfield in September of that year. The plane is a Gulfstream 14-seater business jet that cannot be used for arms transport, but there are other relevant connections. Fred Rindel was the owner of Dodson. The company was closed on 31 December 1998, but during the period under investigation, the plane was leased to, and operated by, Greater Holdings (Liberia) Ltd., a company with gold and diamond concessions in Liberia. The plane was used for the transport of the Greater Holdings' staff to and from Liberia.
Are they the same company or sister companies? If so, how does a guy like Rindel come by a U. S. military surplus plane still listed in some places as being operated by the U. S. Air Force?
Dodson says they sold the plane to Logo Logistics, Ltd. (registered in Britain's Channel Islands), but Logo Logistics claims that they're leasing the plane from "an asset management company" called "Systems Design." (Could these company names get any blander? They sound very slush-pile to me. Do either of these companies actually exist?)
In this morning's news, mostly coming out of papers in South Africa, there is much fuss about the race of the burly, alleged mercenaries and also about whether they are South African citizens. I don't know enough to care much about this. But the specifics, from iafrica.com, get more interesting:
Zimbabwe Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi has told a South African radio station that all the men arrested aboard a Boeing 727-100 were carrying South African passports.
"We've confirmed there are 20 South Africans, 18 Namibians, 23 Angolans and two DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo)... all these people even if they've confirmed their nationalities to be different, they all hold South African passports," Mohadi told Durban-based East Coast Radio
He has also identified the group's leader as Simon Mann. "(He) has actually two passports, a British passport and a South African passport."
Mohadi went on to say there was still no confirmation of exactly where the plane, detained on Sunday, was heading but, "they had sinister motives and were going to an African country".
The minister also told the radio station a map of their destination was found on board the former US Air Force transport.
He named KwaZulu-Natal resident Simon Witherspoon as another key member of the group
"Some of them are known to be mercenaries. Witherspoon is one of them. And the company that they say they're working for, Executive Outcomes, is a company that's widely known as a company that is used by mercenaries to stage coups and mostly in Africa," said Mohadi.
Executive Outcomes disbanded - reports
However, it has been widely reported that Executive Outcomes, a mercenary outfit that assisted the Angolan government defeat the Unita rebel movement and the Sierra Leone authorities deal with the barbaric Revolutionary United Front, disbanded in 1999 when South Africa's Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, passed by Parliament the previous year, came into effect.
Claims that the company has continued since then under other names have never been proven, or disproved.
Meanwhile, the President of Equatorial believes that it was him the mercenaries were after. What does Equatorial Guinea have that others might covet?
Equatorial Guinea is situated on the oil rich Gulf of Guinea and comprises the Rio Muni coastal enclave, the island of Bioko and the islands of Annobon, Corisco, Elobey Grande and Elobey Chico. The upstream oil industry is key to the economy of Equatorial Guinea and is growing rapidly with expanding foreign interest and investment. Oil accounts for 60% of GDP and 90% of total exports. Equatorial Guinea has proven oil reserves of 12 million barrels and gas reserves of 1.3 Tcf. In the three years since 1996, oil production has risen from 17,000 bpd to 90,000 bpd in mid 1999. At the end of 1999, the estimate for annual oil investment in Equatorial Guinea was over $2 billion.
The offshore area of Equatorial Guinea falls into two separate sections; the shelf around Bioko Island and the Shelf off Rio Muni, an enclave between Cameroon and Gabon. Both have good hydrocarbon potential.
Although oil was first discovered in the 1960's, it was first produced offshore in 1991 from the Alba oilfied discovered by Mobil. Production of liquified natural gas (LNG) began in 1997, using wet gas from Alba field. In March 1995, Zafiro field was discovered in Block B with an eventual production rate of 100,000 bpd. Zafiro oilfield is Equatorial Guinea's major oil producer. Additional discoveries were made on Block B, including Jade, Topacio, Amatista, Rubi and Serpentina. In 1999, a deepwater field, La Ceiba with estimated reserves as high as 300 to 500 million barrels was discovered by Triton Energy and Energy Africa in Block G of the Rio Muni Basin. In mid 2000, Chevron and Vanco Energy have signed production sharing contracts for the deepwater Block L and Corisco Block respectively.
In other words, Equatorial Guinea swims on a sea of oil. Could Halliburton have anything to do with this mess? In my thriller they would. Speaking of Halliburton, what's going on with Cheney and the Nigerian bribery allegations?
UPDATE: The plot thickens as Nicholas du Toit appears on Equatorial Guinea TV to describe the mission to remove President Obiang Nguema; and Severo Moto Nsa, the accused would-be-EQ-head-of-state exiled in Spain, denies allegations but claims that Obiang wants to eat his testicles (now there's a political allegation we don't hear much in North America!):
Malabo - A plot to abduct the president of the small, oil-rich west African nation of Equatorial Guinea was unveiled on national television on Wednesday by the alleged leader of a group of mercenaries, apparently a 48-year-old South African.
"It wasn't a question of taking the life of the head of state, but of spiriting him away, taking him to Spain and forcing him into exile and then of immediately installing the government in exile of Severo Moto Nsa," said the man, introduced as Nick du Toit.
Malabo called on Wednesday for the extradition of Moto, who tried to mount a coup against Obiang in 1997 from Angola and recently set up a government in exile in Spain.
"The leader of this mercenary operation whose aim was to topple the current government had been recruited by the "escapee" from Equatorial Guinean justice Severo Moto Nsa for a sum of $10m," the state radio said.
But Moto denied any involvement in the alleged plot. Severo Moto "has at no time left Spain," said a statement issued by his government in exile.
Moto also went on the offensive, telling Spanish radio station Onda Cero that Obiang was an "authentic cannibal" who "systematically eats his political rivals".
"A while back he paid millions to those they call marabou (sorcerers) to tell him if his power base was safe. They told him that to keep his grip on power he had to kill people close to him.
Wants to eat my testicles
"Obiang wants me to go back to Guinea and eat my testicles. That's clear," he told Onda Cero.
AND MEANWHILE, a Zimbabwe paper alleges that "United States forces are reportedly carrying out military exercises around Equatorial Guinea." Interesting if true.