Sir Mark Thatcher was preparing to flee South Africa when he was arrested over his alleged involvement in a botched coup attempt, police in Cape Town alleged yesterday.
As the apparent plot to overthrow the president of Equatorial Guinea continued to unravel, the elite Scorpions police unit said it had arrested Sir Mark after learning that he had put his house on the market, arranged to sell four of his cars, found boarding school places in the U.S. for his two children and bought his family plane tickets to the U.S.
When officers arrived at his home in the upmarket Constantia suburb of Cape Town at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, they found the Thatchers' suitcases packed and in the hall. The house had been placed on the market for 22 million rand.
"That's why we moved to arrest him," Sipho Ngwema, spokesman for the Scorpions, told the Guardian. "We did not want him to leave the country while we were investigating him."
Further details of the charges against Sir Mark emerged yesterday. According to police, they have evidence that he invested $271,000 to fund the logistics of the coup attempt. Ngwema said the Scorpions were confident they had evidence against Sir Mark that will stand up in court. "We have evidence that Thatcher has been financing the plot against Equatorial Guinea. We found information when we searched his residence that is going to assist us in the case."
Sir Mark, 51, who denies involvement, is under effective house arrest for allegedly helping to fund the coup attempt.
Lawyers in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, said extradition proceedings had started against Sir Mark. "There has been an initial expression of interest from the government of Equatorial Guinea to South Africa," Lucie Bourthoumieux, a lawyer representing the central African country, told Reuters.
State prosecutors in Equatorial Guinea, where 14 suspected foreign mercenaries are on trial for plotting a coup, have demanded the death penalty for one of the men, South African Nick du Toit. Sir Mark could in theory also face the death penalty if extradited and found guilty.
However, Makhosini Nkosi, a spokes-man for South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, said he did not expect Sir Mark to be extradited. "South Africa is opposed to the death penalty and we wouldn't extradite someone to a country where he would face the danger of the death penalty," he said.
The alleged leader of the plot, Simon Mann, an Old Etonian and former SAS officer, has been in jail in Zimbabwe since March, along with 69 other men. They were arrested on the tarmac at Harare airport in Zimbabwe after landing to pick up a small arsenal allegedly to be used to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.
By Thursday night three different explanations had emerged from the Thatcher camp for Sir Mark's decision to leave South Africa. Friends in London said he had decided to move back to America months ago, hinting that it was a move designed to save his marriage to Texas millionaire Diane Burgdorf.
Meanwhile, one of his lawyers in South Africa said the family was "downsizing" to a smaller home in Cape Town because the children were going to boarding school in America, where the Thatchers would be spending more time.
But Thursday night his supporters offered a more sinister explanation. Channel 4 News reported claims, first made last month, that Sir Mark had received anonymous threats over his alleged links to the coup plotters.
Sir Mark was first interviewed about the allegations more than two weeks ago, after agreeing to a meeting with the Scorpions in Pretoria. "It was just a normal interrogation," his friend said.
Meanwhile the number of businessmen and establishment figures involved in the coup plot was widening. Lord Archer, who was dragged into the controversy after $134,000 was deposited into Mann's bank account in the name of J.H. Archer four days before the coup attempt, was at the Olympics in Athens. He referred inquiries to his lawyers in London. They said he had never met, spoken to or communicated in any way with Mann, but the statement stopped short of denying he had paid the money into Mann's company account.
New allegations also emerged about the role of Greg Wales, a British businessman and friend of Mann. He was named in a writ issued in the high court in London by the government of Equatorial Guinea. He was also identified as a conspirator by Du Toit. Ashley Jacobs, a South African security consultant, told the Guardian that Wales employed him to conduct an intelligence survey in Equatorial Guinea.
"I now know, of course, it was for a coup," he said. "I am very glad I didn't go to Equatorial Guinea because I would be locked up too. Mr. Wales asked me to conduct a security and intelligence survey of the harbors in Equatorial Guinea. He also wanted intelligence on the politics of President Obiang's regime."
Wales told the Guardian that the allegations against him were "very good fun but unadjacent to the truth."
Thursday night, Channel 4 News reported claims by Christine Gordon, a journalist friend of Wales, that he had attended more than 20 meetings with Sir Mark, Mann and others. Wales later released a statement admitting he had meetings with Mann and Sir Mark about various business deals involving Equatorial Guinea, but probably not as many as 20.
Another pivotal figure in the alleged coup plot is James Kershaw, a South African accountant who has been alleged to be the coup's "paymaster." He is named by Mann in a note smuggled out of prison appealing to his friends and family for help. Bank records for Mann's company Logo Ltd. identify Kershaw as managing the company's finances. He was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Mann also named other alleged potential investors in the smuggled note. As well as Sir Mark -- referred to as "Scratcher" -- they include an Italian businessman and socialite, Gianfranco Cicogna, who Mann claimed had promised $200,000. Cicogna was unavailable for comment.
Another businessman linked to the allegations is Gary Hersham, the founder of an exclusive estate agents in Mayfair and St. John's Wood, London. In his prison statement in March, Mann said that before the coup plans got underway, he had gone on a business trip to Gabon with Hersham, who later introduced him to Ely Calil, the British businessman who is alleged to be one of the financiers behind the deal -- an allegation he strenuously denies. Hersham was on holiday in Europe yesterday and did not return calls. But he has said he had no knowledge of the coup plot.
The Guardian ran a correction to this story on Aug. 28, 2004. You can read it here.