By Staff Reporters, Reuters, Sapa and Sapa-AFP

A "known South African mercenary" headed the group of about 60 suspected mercenaries found aboard a cargo plane by Zimbabwean authorities.

And several other known former Executive Outcomes mercenaries have been named as part of the group under interrogation in Harare after a Boeing 727-100 cargo plane carrying at least 64 suspected mercenaries was impounded at Harare Airport on Sunday.

This is according to a statement released on Tuesday by Zimbabwean Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mohadi, who said that Simon Witherspoon, a "known South African mercenary", appeared to be the leader of the group.

According to reports, Mohadi named Witherspoon, Simon Mann and Nicholas du Toit as part of the group being held in Zimbabwe.

And according to a former security analyst on mercenary activity, Witherspoon, along with former British Special Air Service member Mann and Nicholas du Toit, formed the basis of the mercenary company Executive Outcomes.

The analyst, who requested to remain anonomous, said: "Executive Outcomes (EO) closed shop in 1999, but if Witherspoon and Mann are involved in this operation then I believe EO's core group is once again operating.

"Man and Du Toit are former South African Defence Force members; they are fighting troops. They are not deminers and they are not trainers. Mann was one of the founders of EO and has links to the British SAS. He's the man on the ground directing operations. These are highly sophisticated soldiers and they don't come cheap - it would be interesting to see who was paying them."

News of the mercenary connection was released by Mohadi after the US-registered Boeing was impounded at Harare Airport on Sunday.

A search of the aircraft yielded "military equipment" but no weapons.

Mohadi said Mann and a colleague had arrived in Zimbabwe in early February and inquired about buying arms and ammunition, supposedly to protect a mining property in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Questions were raised as to why the two South Africans would want to buy weapons from Zimbabwe if the end use was legal. South Africa is a much bigger arms manufacturer," Mohadi said.

"A sinister motive was therefore suspected. The modus operandi of the group indicates that the group was on a military mission on the African continent."

Mohadi said the two men "later changed their story (to) that they wanted to protect a mining concern in the DRC."

A spokesperson for South Africa's department of foreign affairs, Ronnie Mamoepa, said on Tuesday that if the men on board did turn out to be "dogs of war", South Africa would abandon them to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's justice.

Mohadi said that of the men arrested, 20 were South Africans, 18 Namibians, 23 Angolans, two Congolese and one was a Zimbabwean using a South African passport.

Some sources say the men have been split into groups and are being interrogated at various locations.

As for their destination, Mohadi said: "Bujumbura in Burundi, Mbujimayi in the DRC and other destinations have been given by the group."

But attention shifted quickly to Equatorial Guinea, with the arrest of another 15 suspected mercenaries for allegedly planning to topple the government of President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

That country's information minister, Agustin Nse Nfumu, said the group held on Tuesday was made up of white South Africans, black South Africans of Angolan origin, a German and others from Kazakhstan and Armenia.

He said they were the "advance party" for those detained in Harare.

One source said the real reason the group had flown to Harare was to pick up their leader and other members of the team.

However, Logo Logistics, a British firm purporting to be the employer of the plane, said the men were mining contractors on a mission to the DRC.

It said the "military" items on board were, in fact, equipment such as boots, and pipe-bending and wire-cutting tools.

In a third twist, The Star has confirmed that the flight plans submitted by the crew gave the final destination as Bujumbura in Burundi, with a Zimbabwe stopover.

According to these plans, the plane took off from Lanseria Airport on Sunday, landed at Wonderboom Airport in Pretoria to pick up passengers and cargo and then proceeded to Polokwane, an international airport, before heading for Harare en route to Burundi.

The South African high commissioner in Harare, Jerry Ndou, mentioned a third Congolese, raising the number of detainees to 65.