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By Emil Danielyan
Official Yerevan challenged Tuesday the credibility of coup charges against six Armenians arrested in Equatorial Guinea this month and said it is trying to secure their release with the help of “friendly third nations” and international human rights groups.

The Armenian nationals are among 15 foreigners accused by the leadership of the oil-rich West African state of plotting to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang Nguema. The Armenian government says they are civilian pilots who worked in the region on a private contract.

“The accusations are so contradictory that they in no way relate to their professional activities,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Authorities in Equatorial Guinea present the Armenian citizens as militant mercenaries, despite the fact that they are professional pilots with a long work experience.”

Nguema’s regime, viewed by the United States as one of the most repressive in the world, claims that the suspects were an advance party of a larger group of “mercenaries” arrested in Zimbabwe earlier in March. The 70 suspects -- mainly South Africans, Angolans and Namibians -- made their first appearance in a Zimbabwean court on Tuesday to face the same accusations. The men deny the charges, saying they were heading to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo to guard mines.

The Foreign Ministry statement said the Armenians are highly unlikely to have been involved in any kind of intelligence-gathering because they were not familiar with Equatorial Guinea’s language and culture. It said they entered the former Spanish colony in January not by sea, as is claimed by the local government, but on their Antonov-12 plane chartered by a German firm from a private Armenian carrier.

The statement added that Armenian diplomats have already spoken with their Guinean counterparts in Moscow and New York to explore ways of having the pilots freed. It said Armenia has also requested assistance from France and Russia which have embassies in the country’s capital Malabo.

“An official from the French embassy has already visited the Armenian detainees and found their health condition satisfactory,” it said, adding that Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian has telephoned his Congolese opposite number to ask him to assist in the Armenians’ release. Yerevan has also appealed to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International, according to the statement.

United Nations officials announced on Monday that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will send a special envoy to Equatorial Guinea to “discuss with the authorities the situation on the ground and its implications for peace and security in the subregion.” The crisis was discussed late last week in Malabo by senior officials from South Africa. Most of the 15 suspected mercenaries are reportedly South Africans.

(AFP-Photolur photo: TV grab picture off the SABC news channel shows the Boeing plane that carried 67 alleged mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe's capital Harare.)
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