By Jovial Rantao

A controversial R35-million military equipment deal is threatening to sour relations between South Africa and Congo-Brazzaville.

The Congo-Brazzaville government has paid for four used and refurbished Puma 330L helicopters but has not yet received them.

The helicopters were ordered from Armscor in 1997 through a South African company that acted as a broker in the deal. The Congolese have demanded a refund, plus interest, from Armscor.

The helicopters were ordered with the authority of the then Congolese president, Dr Pascal Lissouba. However Lissouba was deposed in a coup d'etat before delivery of the helicopters could take place.

Now, the new Congo-Brazzaville government, led by Denis Sassou-Nguesso, wants the R35-million refunded and has dispatched two emissaries, Casimir Ombere and Bruno Opoukou, to South Africa to retrieve the millions.

A charge of fraud has been laid and high-level investigations by the police's organised crime unit have begun.

The Congo-Brazzaville government, through its embassy in Pretoria, has hired South African lawyers in an effort to recoup the millions.

On July 23 this year, the lawyers served a letter of demand on Sipho Thomo, the chief executive of Armscor. In the letter, the lawyers demand repayment of $7,7-million (about R80-million). The say Armscor has become unjustly enriched at the expense of the Congo-Brazzaville government.

Anatole Khondo, the Congo-Brazzaville ambassador to South Africa, was unavailable for comment on Saturday.

The matter has been raised with Jeff Radebe, the minister of public enterprises.

In the past two years, Radebe has led a number of official delegations to Brazzaville to discuss co-operation between Eskom and Congo-Brazzaville's state electricity utility.

The manner in which the Congolese have raised the issue - "in the context of relations between South Africa and Congo" - has been interpreted as a threat by Brazzaville to pull the plug on several lucrative deals in mining, forestry and oil worth millions which involve top ANC officials. These include a former premier and former chief whip of the ANC in parliament.

Rudolph Wollenhaupt, a German citizen living in Johannesburg, has emerged as a central figure in the dispute. He is the owner of EBAR Management, the company which negotiated the deal with the Congolese.

Jackie Selebi, the national commissioner of police, said on Saturday that Wollenhaupt had been under investigation for some time for alleged fraud and alleged illegal dealing in military weapons and equipment.

Last year, the Congolese government asked the South African Police Service to arrest Wollenhaupt and send him to Brazzaville. However, they have failed to provide the police with formal extradition documents.

Wollenhaupt has denied any guilt.