(CNSNews.com) - An aircraft impounded in Zimbabwe and said to be carrying dozens of "suspected mercenaries" was sold by a U.S. aviation firm to a "reputable" South African company just days ago.
The State Department said Monday there was no indication that the Boeing 727 was registered in the U.S. - as Zimbabwe claims - or that it was connected to the U.S. government.
Spokesman Richard Boucher also said the government had no information that any Americans were being held, and added that the U.S. Embassy in Harare was investigating further.
The Zimbabwe government said it had seized a plane carrying 64 "suspected mercenaries" of various nationalities, along with military equipment, at the Harare International Airport on Sunday evening "after its owners had made a false declaration of its cargo and crew."
Zimbabwe's government has on numerous occasions spoken of conspiracies to overthrow 80-year-old President Robert Mugabe, with the U.S. and Britain usually blamed.
Television footage showed a white aircraft, with the registration number N4610 visible on the fuselage. The Federal Aviation Administration's registry says the aircraft assigned that number is a Boeing 727-35, whose registered owner is Dodson Aviation in Ottawa, Kansas.
Reached by phone late Monday, the company president J.R. Dodson said the plane was sold days ago to a "reputable" South African company named Logo Ltd. He could provide little more information, other than to say the aircraft was built in the 1960s and was "in very good condition."
Dodson also said that, as far as he was aware, the plane was sold in the U.S., and the purchasers themselves would have arranged to have it flown it out of the country.
All companies operating legally in South Africa are registered with the South African Companies and Intellectual Property Registration Office. A company search Monday produced no firm named Logo Ltd.
One of several dozen registered companies using the word "Logo" is "Logo Security," whose business is given as "Investigation and security activities." An address near Pretoria is provided, but South African telephone service operator could find no phone number.
Zimbabwe has given few details about the incident, although Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi, who issued the statement about the seizure, said more information would be made available later, once the identities and mission of those arrested were known.
Media footage has shown no weapons, although the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. (ZBC) television showed an inflatable raft, radios, compasses, and satellite telephones. A Zimbabwean official holding up what appeared to be bolt cutters. No weapons were shown.
ZBC described those arrested as mostly white and "heavily built."
Mugabe's government has become increasingly isolated by the international community because of repressive and undemocratic policies and a policy of seizing privately-owned farms.
In recent weeks, the U.S., European Union and Australia have either widened or renewed sanctions against Harare.
After Washington last week renewed sanctions against members of Mugabe's circle, information minister Jonathan Moyo said the "imperialist" President Bush could "go to hell."
Mugabe rails regularly against the U.S., Britain and the "white" West, which he says is out to remove him from power, and critics say he is becoming increasingly paranoid.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is currently facing charges linked to an alleged plot to assassinate Mugabe.
In 1999, three American men were arrested at Harare airport while trying to take weapons onto a Swiss-bound flight. Accused of plotting assassination and terrorism, they were faced lesser charges and were jailed for eight months.
The men, who claimed to have been tortured in custody, said they were missionaries armed for their protection while working in war-torn Congo.
Private military companies (PMCs) or "mercenary" organizations have operated frequently in Africa in the past, with one of the most successful being the South African outfit Executive Outcomes.
The company, which was credited with helping to secure the elected government of Sierra Leone against a brutal rebellion during the 1990s, comprised mostly members of the apartheid-era security forces.
It shut down in 1998, shortly before South Africa passed the Foreign Military Assistance Act, prohibiting unauthorized involvement by South Africans in military activity abroad.
South African deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad was quoted as saying Monday that the government was worried about reports that some of those arrested in Harare may be South Africans.
David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the British-American Security Information Council, has for years researched the activities of PMCs.
Speaking by phone from Washington Monday, he differentiated between three different types of organizations - "a very small portion of the industry" involved directly in combat, like the shut-down Executive Outcomes; combat support firms, providing intelligence support, logistics or military facilities in places like Colombia and the Balkans; and then other groups providing personnel bodyguard services, securing oil pipelines etc.
"It's always been the smaller groups who have gone out and done the actual fighting," he said, although employees of bigger groups not directly involved in fighting also faced risks in combat zones.
Isenberg said PMCs have taken on an increasingly high-profile role over the past decade, and some were currently involved in security duties in Iraq.
It recently emerged that a San Francisco-based firm, the Steele Foundation, had been providing security for former Haiti leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Isenberg said that those involved in controversial direct combat activities - for instance trying to remove a government on behalf of its opponents - were more likely to be loosely-knit networks than actual companies, he said.
"The people most likely to do it are those who hear something and promote themselves as a potential broker, able to organize a group of people through advertisement or personal contact ... there are small operators who try to do that - not a group per se, just bottom-feeders seeking profit."
Asked what he thought of the reports coming out of Zimbabwe, Isenberg said the men arrested could be a group of old-style "mercenaries," or members of a private security force "of a different nature," perhaps linked to a mining company or natural resource firm.
"An alternative explanation is it could be some kind of elaborate plot or scheme by Mugabe to trump up some hysteria," he added.
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