SA men on home soil

Johannesburg - The 62 suspected mercenaries jailed in Zimbabwe over an alleged coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea have been freed and arrived back in South Africa, a relative of one of the men said on Sunday.

"The guys are here in South Africa and officials are busy processing their papers," said Marge Pain, whose husband Ken was one of 70 men arrested in March last year when their plane stopped at Harare airport to pick up weapons.

Zimbabwean authorities alleged the guns were to be used to unseat Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Pain told reporters that an ambulance had arrived at the Beit Bridge border post, the main port of entry between Zimbabwe and South Africa, to attend to some of the men who were ill.

"The ambulance has just gone into the border post with (the group's lawyer) Alwyn (Griebenow), so they are definitely here," she said.

A South African police officer at the post, 540km north of Johannesburg told reporters: "They have arrived," but could not give a time.

The men were formally discharged from prison on Thursday and placed in the custody of immigration authorities although they remained at Chikurubi maximum-security prison on Harare's outskirts.

The men, who all hold South African passports, were convicted and sentenced to 12 months in prison for violating Zimbabwe's immigration laws.

Pain said however that she was told that "eight men will be allowed to come through while the rest would be taken away where their citizenships will be verified".

Briton Simon Mann, founder of the defunct mercenary outfit Executive Outcomes and the suspected mastermind of the alleged coup, will remain behind bars as he is serving a four-year sentence on more serious charges of breaching firearms laws.

Two pilots who flew the plane into Harare will be released in two months. The three-million-dollar Boeing 727 that flew them into Harare has been forfeited to Zimbabwe.

British businessman Mark Thatcher was accused of partly financing the alleged plot to install opposition leader Severo Moto in Malabo and pleaded guilty in South Africa to violating its anti-mercenary law in January.

The son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher paid a R3-million fine although he has steadfastly denied that he knowingly took part in the conspiracy.

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