mercenaries freed

LIBREVILLE - British mercenary Simon Mann, granted amnesty for a 2004 failed coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, left the west African country on a private jet, an airport official said.

LIBREVILLE - British mercenary Simon Mann, granted amnesty for a 2004 failed coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, left the west African country on a private jet, an airport official said.

"He left with members of his family around 7am yesterday. The plane should be going to Britain," the official told AFP. Sources had said on Tuesday that Mann, 57, could go to another country other than Britain.

Equatorial Guinea on Tuesday pardoned and freed Mann and South African mercenaries Nick du Toit, Sergio Cardoso, Jose Sundays and George Alerson, who were jailed for their 2004 bid to oust President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

The mercenary leaders had been jailed for 34 years each for their role in the plot. The former British Special Air Service officer underwent hernia surgery last year and his state of health was one of the reasons for the amnesty, national radio said.

After his release Mann had spent the day at a hotel near Malabo airport where his family arrived earlier on the same jet that took him out of the country.

The South Africans have been handed over to their embassy in Malabo and were still in the country as President Jacob Zuma arrived in Equatorial Guinea for a long planned visit late on Tuesday.

Mann was arrested in March 2004 along with 61 other people when their plane landed in Zimbabwe. He spent four years in a Zimbabwe prison on firearms charges before being deported to Equatorial Guinea. At his trial there, Mann implicated Mark Thatcher, son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, in the plot to oust Obiang Nguema, who has run the country since a 1979 coup that ousted his uncle. The plot aimed to bring exiled opposition leader Severo Moto to power.

He told his trial last year that Spain and South Africa had backed the plot. Mann and Du Toit had set up Executive Outcomes, which operated from Pretoria and helped the Angolan government protect its oil installations from rebels during that country's long civil war.

The mercenaries' release came as Equatorial Guinea opens its presidential election campaign today. The vote is set for November 29 and Obiang Nguema is seeking another mandate. - Sapa-AFP

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