About 10 days ago, my phone rang in the middle of the night. "My name is Dr. Alexander fvon Paleske and I am calling you from Gaborone," a man's voice said in English tinged with a heavy German accent. "Have you heard about the coup in Equatorial Guinea?" Dr. Von Paleske is head of the oncology department at Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, in southern Africa. "I want to remove the mercenaries from Africa," he explained. "As a physician, I see the disastrous consequences of their criminal deeds on the continent."
Why did you call me, of all people?
Von Pleske: "Because I found your name on the Internet in the context of Gerhard Eugen Merz."
What is your connection with him?
"I have no direct connection with him."
Gerhard Merz was an arms dealer; I didn't know he was a mercenary.
"He certainly was. He was murdered during the coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea."
On March 7, 2004, the Zimbabwe police detained a chartered plane that had arrived in Harare, the capital, from South Africa, and arrested 70 of the passengers. Most of those detained were South African citizens. They said they had been hired by a security consultancy company to guard a diamond mine in Congo. A few days later, the government of Equatorial Guinea announced that its police had arrested 20 people, most of them Armenians and South Africans, who were the vanguard for the force that was arrested in Harare. According to the announcement, the two groups were connected and had planned to topple the regime of President Teodoro Obiang.
Merz, who was one of those arrested in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, was suspected of being the conspirators' "transportation officer," his task being to supply them with a plane and an Armenian crew, and to look after the flight arrangements. Merz died about 10 days after his arrest; his body was flown to Germany and buried there. The official cause of death was malaria, but Von Paleske is convinced that Merz was murdered. He therefore asked the German authorities to perform an autopsy to determine the cause of death.
The Israeli connection
Who was Gerhard Merz? Very little is known about him. He was born in Frankfurt in 1947. During his youth he stayed for a while in Israel. In 1963 he returned to Germany. Attempts to find information about his status and activities in Israel from the Interior Ministry and from other sources were unsuccessful. What Merz did for the next 30 years - from the time he left Israel until May 18, 1995 - is not known. At that time his name was included in an executive order signed by U.S. President Bill Clinton and sent to Congress, stating that Merz had been involved in "proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons" to Iran. (Clinton signed the order in November 1994; the date in May refers to his letter to Congress informing them of the fact; see http://fas.org/spp/starwars/offdocs/w950518.htm)
The sales were made from 1991 to 1993. Two of Merz's associates, Manfred Felber, an Austrian, and Luciano Moscatelli, an Australian, were also named in the presidential directive. It also listed several companies that the three owned, or which were connected with them. One of them, Mainway International, was registered in Bad Homburg, Germany, and in Hong Kong. According to the order, the three men and their companies were being blacklisted along with others who had violated the American and international embargo on trading with Iran in general, and in chemical warfare (CW) equipment, in particular. The order bars Americans from doing business with people and companies who are on the blacklist.
Neither the order nor the involvement of the three generated serious interest in the international media, and so the subject did not come up on the public agenda. Not in Germany, not in Austria, not in Australia and not in the U.S. It was only four years later than an investigative report in Haaretz (January 1999) exposed the details of the sale of CW equipment to Iran. Surprisingly, it turned out that an Israeli businessman, Moshe Regev (Regenstreich) was also associated with the group.
Regev served in the Israel Defense Forces as a munitions man in an armored brigade and was discharged with the rank of major after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the 1970s he tried his hand at several businesses, notably in diamonds and trading in gold. The businesses foundered, the debts accumulated (to the First International Bank, among others) and Regev left Israel. He went to Germany and then Switzerland, and got into trouble in both countries as he was suspected of committing acts of fraud and deceit. While abroad he met Merz and Felber, and together with them registered Mainway International. That is the company which, according to Clinton's executive order, supplied Iran with CW materials that were acquired in China.
The Haaretz investigation turned up additional details. It emerged that Merz, Felber (who is married to an Iranian woman) and Regev maintained ties with an Iranian acquisition network headed by Dr. Majid Abbaspour. Abbaspour was head of Unit 105 in the Iranian Defense Ministry and was responsible for its missile and CW program. He was also the liaison, meeting several times in Vienna not only with Merz and Felber, but also with Israeli businessman Nahum Manbar.
Both on the blacklist
It is hard to ignore the similarities between the Manbar affair and the deals made by Merz, Felber and Regev. Both groups, that of Manbar and his aides (who later testified against him), Brigadier General Amos Kotzer and Doran Lichtman, and that of Merz, purchased chemicals in China. Both groups met with Abbaspour in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe. Both were placed on the U.S. State Department blacklist, which was draw up in part on the basis of intelligence information. The 1999 article in Haaretz asked why, in that case, Manbar had been arrested and sentenced by an Israeli court to 16 years in prison for security offenses, whereas no action was taken against Regev (who was also apparently an Israeli citizen).
After the article appeared, Regev called at his initiative from the U.S. and vehemently denied the suspicion that he had been involved in selling chemicals to Iran. He related that Felber and Merz had proposed that he sell Iran telephones and that he had taken them up on the offer. But Regev added another interesting detail: He revealed in the interview that he had reported to the security authorities (probably the Defense Ministry and the Shin Bet security service) about his contacts with the Iranians.
That detail also recalled Manbar's story. During his dealings with Iran, Manbar met from time to time with a Shin Bet agent and told him about his ties with the Iranians, though in his trial in 1997, it turned out that he had not reported everything he knew or the full scope of his deals. In reaction to the publication of Regev's account in Haaretz, official spokesmen of the Defense Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office denied knowing Regev or knowing about his activities and the operations of Mainway International.
In the six years since the article appeared, Regev-Regenstreich continued to get into trouble and commit offenses. He was arrested in South Africa on suspicion of committing acts of fraud. The German prosecutor Reinhard Hubner said this week in a phone call from his office in Giessen that he had dealt with Regev's case. In 2002, he said, Regev was extradited from Switzerland to Germany, where he was wanted on suspicion of having committed fraud. In Germany he was incarcerated until the end of his trial. A court in the city of Friedberg in the State of Hessen found Regev guilty of committing acts of fraud.
According to the indictment, he fraudulently pocketed money through a company and a hotel he owned. He was given a two-year suspended sentence and released. Since then he has disappeared and this week could not be located. As far as is known, there was no connection between the deeds of Gerhard Merz in Equatorial Guinea and his former partner Moshe Regev.
Until a few years ago, Equatorial Guinea was one of the most remote places in Africa. It lies in West Africa, between Cameroon and Gabon, and consists of a stretch of coast and five inhabited islands; Malabo, the capital, is located on the largest of the islands. The country has an area of 28,000 square kilometers and a population of about 500,000. For 190 years Equatorial Guinea was a Spanish colony, gaining independence in 1968. Since then it has been ruled by two relatives, an uncle and his nephew, each of whom in turn is considered corrupt and responsible for serial human rights abuses.
At Christmas 1975, the first president, Francisco Masias Nguema, ordered his militia to arrest 150 of his rivals. They were taken to the stadium in Malabo and massacred while in the background, the song "Those Were the Days" blared from loudspeakers. Under Nguema's despotic terror regime, a third of the country's inhabitants were either killed or fled, and lived as refugees in neighboring countries.
In 1979 the president was arrested and executed by order of his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the current president. On paper, the country has a democratic constitution, and the nephew, who seized power, saw to it that the existence of at least a semblance of democracy was apparent. He was elected three times to seven-year terms. In the last elections, in 2002, he won a majority of 97.1 percent (the opposition candidates withdrew, fearing fraud). However, international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say that the country is languishing under a tyrannical regime accompanied by a personality cult.
According to reports of such groups, Equatorial Guinea is rife with acts of killing, mass arrest and torture of prisoners. There are no newspapers in the country and the only radio station is under the direct control of the president. Two years ago, an announcer on the radio station described the president as "the country's god" and added that he was in constant communication with "Almighty God" and hears his voice. A presidential aide explained that Obiang "can decide to kill anyone without explanation and without being sent to hell, because he acts at the guidance of God himself."
Equatorial Guinea might have continued to be far from the world's eye and heart, had it not been for the discovery of oil there. In Africa, only Nigeria and Angola have larger oil reserves. Since the discovery, the world's attitude toward Equatorial Guinea - or, more accurately, the attitude of the multinational oil companies and the governments behind them - has changed. TotalFinaElf of France, Patronas of Malaysia, Energy Africa of South Africa, and the American firms Exxon Mobil, Marathon Oil and Chevron Texaco hurried to win a stake in the new bonanza. To date they have invested some $5 billion to develop the oil fields. In return they received generous franchises that give them control and handsome profits.
No such profits reach the country's inhabitants, though. They continue to subsist in abject poverty and to die young. Their average income, according to a World Bank report, is $2 a day; their average lifespan is 49 years. The money flows into the deep pockets of President Obiang and a few hundreds of his relatives, ministers, police officers and other cronies. About six months ago, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate discovered that the Washington-based Riggs Bank was used to launder money for the president and his close circle. Accounts totaling $700 million were found in their name in the bank.
The sudden wealth has also made Equatorial Guinea a hothouse of international intrigue. The president's opponents have established a government-in-exile in Spain. In 1998, 2002 and last month, three failed coup attempts were mounted. The trials of two of the groups that were arrested in March, in Zim babwe and in Equatorial Guinea, turned up details that might have come from "The Dogs of War," the novel by the British journalist and writer Frederick Forsyth, which was published more than 30 years ago. The novel is about a group of European mercenaries operating in Africa on a mission for British businessmen, with the aim of toppling the government in a fictitious country rich in natural resources. The goal of the businessmen, who are well connected to the political and economic elite in Britain, is to seize control of the country's platinum mines.
Forsyth spent time in Equatorial Guinea while researching the book, and there is no doubt that he had the country in mind when he wrote his best-seller. The image of the country that Forsyth created has haunted it for years. After the abortive coup of 1998, it was enough for a tourist to be found with a copy of the book for him to be arrested on suspicion of plotting to topple the government.
Forsyth foresaw the future. As in his novel, most of the detainees in the latest coup attempt are former military personnel with rich combat experience. They have ties with British businessmen, bankers and politicians. The only difference is that instead of platinum, they are lured by the oil of Equatorial Guinea.
The leader of the group of rebels who were apprehended in Equatorial Guinea is Nick du Toit, an arms dealer and former member of an elite unit in the South African army. In his trial he revealed that the coup attempt was organized by Severo Moto, an opposition leader living in exile, who found asylum in Spain. The court sentenced Moto in absentia to a lengthy prison term. Du Toit, who is in his thirties, stated in his defense that his role in the conspiracy was limited and included only recruiting the manpower, obtaining weapons and coordinating the plot. The prosecutor, however, was not persuaded and did not hesitate to brand du Toit a "dog of war."
Du Toit, who has lost 30 kilograms since his arrest, alleged that he had been tortured during his interrogation and that his "confessions" were extracted under duress. In his testimony he related that the commander of the plotters was Simon Mann, who was one of those arrested in Zimbabwe. For the past decade Mann has been a household name in the realm of schemes and coups in Africa and in the Third World as a whole. He is one of three British associates who have created a kind of "label" for themselves in the coup department. The three - Mann, Tony Buckingham and Tim Spicer - can take credit for trying to "launder" the term "mercenaries" so as to rid it of its pejorative connotations.
Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer, now in his fifties, was an English "flower child" who came to the U.S. and took part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Returning to England, he joined the elite SAS unit (Special Air Service), which was established in World War II by Colonel David Stirling in order to operate behind enemy lines. To this day the unit is a role model for the special forces in many armies. The founder of Israel's elite Sayeret Matkal unit, Avraham Arnan, was deeply influenced by the SAS and its exploits.
During his service in the unit, on behalf of the British government, Spicer was part of the team that protected Sultan Kabous, of Oman. In the 1970s the sultan was aided by British troops in suppressing a left-wing uprising in the province of Dofar. Some time later, Spicer was assigned to the headquarters of the Special Forces, where he became acquainted at first-hand with the interface between the world of special military operations and the world of shadow diplomacy. Afterward he was transferred to service in another elite unit: the Scots Guards. Its historic role is to protect the queen when she is in London, but in practice it is a military unit that is well trained for special operations.
In the Scots Guards, Spicer met his accomplice in arms and future business, Simon Mann, scion of a wealth family of beer brewers. Mann attended Eton, a school that is a breeding ground for the political, military and economic elites of Britain. At the conclusion of his studies, he, like Spicer, volunteered for the SAS. During their service in the unit, Spicer and Mann were stationed in Northern Ireland. The unit's mission was to fight against the terrorist organizations of the Catholics and the Protestants alike. In 1992, a squad from the unit under Spicer's direct command was involved in a controversial incident, which resulted in the killing of Peter McBride, a young Catholic. Allegations continue to be made that the unit violated the rules of engagement in the incident.
After completing their military service, the two opened and shut several businesses where they marketed the only commodity in which they were skilled: military know-how and special operations. In 1995 they met Tony Buckingham. Like them, he was a former fighter in a special unit of the British Army - the SBS (Special Boat Service), the British Navy's commando force. Like them, he was plugged into the political establishment and numbered among his friends senior figures in the Conservative Party, as well as David Steele, the leader of the Liberal Party (which merged with the Social Democrat Party), who was on the board of directors of one Buckingham's companies.
Buckingham's initial steps in business were modest. At the beginning of the 1990s he worked as a diver on oil rigs in the North Sea. He then set up his own company, Heritage Oil, which operated oilfields in Angola. In 1993, when rebels from the UNITA movement led by Jonas Savimbi seized the company's oil facilities, Buckingham realized that he needed security. To that end he forged ties with Executive Outcomes, a private security company owned by former members of top units in the South African army, who were left idle following the collapse of the apartheid regime.
Instead of the dirty missions against the blacks (especially the liquidation of opponents of the regime), the company's officials, all of them skilled former soldiers, began to carry out special operations for Tony Buckingham.
At first this was in the service of the Angolan government's oil business, but the company very quickly gained fame in other regions of the continent. Apart from securing oilfields, the firm also supplied guard services for diamond and gold mines in Congo and Sierra Leone. It was in Sierra Leone that the company employed Nick du Toit.
That activity paved the way for the group to supply a "private army" to the governments of Rwanda and Burundi. Their operations were also convenient for the British government. The vestiges of the colonial tradition, in which the government draws on the aid of private entrepreneurs to advance its interests, continue to exist. The company's activity in Africa served salient interests of the City, the British business community. Secret reports of British intelligence revealed the close ties between MI6, the secret service, and the trio.
The trio's employers in Africa were governments, but governments of dubious reputation that were engaged in civil wars or other conflicts. Providing security for mines sometimes entails supplying mercenaries to protect the head of state. Nor was the company choosy about its clients. In 1995, for example, Tony Buckingham flew to Baghdad and met with Saddam Hussein's oil minister.
The media began to take an interest in the company and the ground began to burn beneath the feet of the three. Buckingham realized that it was time to change direction, or at least image. The three met in October 1996 in an Italian restaurant in London, in Chelsea, not far from Kings Road, where the company's offices were located. In the meeting they formulated a new strategy. They reached the conclusion that Executive Outcomes had become more of a liability than an asset; they decided to repackage their product and offer the world a new concept. The term "mercenaries" would be replaced by a more sterile name - Private Military Companies (PMC). What they were doing is privatizing military services. Executive Outcomes was shut down and in its place arose a new firm, Sandline International.
The group's next operation took place at the other end of the world. In 1997, the government of Papua New Guinea hired the services of Sandline. The official purpose was to suppress a revolt that had broken out on the island of Bougainville. The true goal, though, was to open the copper mine on the island, which the rebels had seized and shut down. Behind this plan was not only the legitimate government of Papua New Guinea, but also Australian and British businessmen with interests in the mine.
The operation failed already at the airport, even before it got off the ground, so to speak. The Australian Air Force intercepted a Soviet-made Antonov transport aircraft on which were found helicopters and weapons earmarked for Sandline's mercenaries. The investigators discovered that the plane had been leased by Spicer. He was arrested and charged with illegal possession of arms, but was released under pressure from the government of Tony Blair, which had good reasons to keep the affair secret.
Spicer returned to London and continued to operate without interference in Sierra Leone and other African countries. In the past year his name resurfaced. He had in the meantime left Sandline and now, through another of his companies, Aegis Defense Service, he won a $300-million contract from the Pentagon to supply security services in Iraq. Spicer employs about 20,000 security guards, many of them South Africans, who provide auxiliary services for the U.S. armed forces and the Iraqi government. Recently, the parents of Peter McBride - the Irish youngster who was shot by the Scots Guards - with the help of the Irish lobby in Washington, have been trying to get Spicer's contract annulled because of his responsibility for their son's death.
As though the labyrinthine exploits of Buckingham, Mann and Spicer were not enough, the failed coup in Equatorial Guinea turned up an even more famous name: Sir Mark Thatcher. In August 2004, about five months after the conspirators were arrested, the South African police detained the son of Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Britain. The arrest was made at the request of the Equatorial Guinea authorities, who maintain that Thatcher was involved in financing the coup attempt.
As a young man, Thatcher, 51, was a racecar driver and afterward a failed businessman. In the 1980s, when his mother, the "Iron Lady," was prime minister, the pampered son tried to exploit the family name to promote his business. Among other projects, he represented British firms in arms deals in Oman and Saudi Arabia, pocketing millions in commissions and becoming a wealthy man. In 1984, under mounting criticism that he was taking advantage of his family connections to make easy profits, Mark Thatcher left Britain for the U.S. There he became entangled in a failed transaction and moved to South Africa.
After a few court hearings in Cape Town, in which Thatcher pleaded his innocence, he was released on bail and placed under house arrest. The bail bond, in the amount of $330,000, was posted by his mother, the former prime minister. The government of Equatorial Guinea demanded that South Africa extradite Thatcher, but behind the scenes, with the intercession of senior personages from South Africa and Britain, a plea bargain was worked out. In January 2005, Mark Thatcher appeared in court again, but this time pleased guilty to lesser charges. He was convicted on the basis of his confession of violating laws against the activity of "mercenaries" in South Africa. The court accepted the plea bargain, sentenced Thatcher to pay a fine of $500,000, and ordered him released.
While Thatcher's case was being heard in court, a court in Harare sentenced Simon Mann to seven years in prison. In January 2005, the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe reduced the sentence to four years. The British and South African media have published a few fantasy-like articles about a daring prison-break operation at the initiative of Buckingham and Spicer, which could outdo even the juicy descriptions of Frederick Forsyth.