Malabo - The leader of a group of suspected mercenaries arrested in Equatorial Guinea said on national television on Wednesday that their mission was to abduct President Teodoro Obiang Nguema and force him into exile.

"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 installing the government in exile of Severo Moto Nsa," said the man, presented under the name of Nick du Toit.

Obiang, who came to power in the small, oil-rich West African nation in a 1979 coup, on Tuesday announced the arrest of a group of 15 mercenaries he said wanted to overthrow his regime.

"A group of mercenaries entered the country and was studying plans to carry out a coup d'etat in Equatorial Guinea," he said, quoted by national radio.

The 15 were found to be in possession of maps of the capital, Malabo, and satellite telephones, Obiang said, adding they were linked to the planeload of suspected mercenaries who have been detained since the weekend in Zimbabwe.

Obiang pointed the finger at Moto, the leader of the country's government in exile, who is based in former colonial power Spain. But Moto on Wednesday denied any involvement in the alleged plot.

The man, who appeared on national television looked European and was talking in English with his words dubbed into Spanish. He faced the camera and did not appear to be frightened or tired.

Earlier national radio had identified the leader of the mercenaries as a 48-year-old South African, Nick du Toit. - Sapa-AFP