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By Rodrigo Angue Nguema
(AFP) - Equatorial Guinea's attorney general said Thursday he was surprised at the protestations of innocence by the Armenian crew of a cargo plane accused of helping to plot a coup, saying the sole reason they were in the central African country was "to wait for mercenaries."

The six Armenian crew members, including captain Ashot Karapetian, told the court earlier that they were unaware on what charges they were being held until a few days before hearings into the alleged bid to oust long-time Equato-Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema began on Monday.

Samuel Darpinian, 41, a co-pilot of the aircraft leased by a company belonging to Gerhard Eugen Merz of Germany -- one of 15 alleged mercenaries arrested in March and accused of fomenting a putsch -- said he did not know why he had been held in Malabo's notorious Black Beach prison since March along with five other crew members and eight South Africans. Merz, who was arrested along with the others, died in detention, officially of cerebral malaria, but with rights groups saying he was tortured to death.

But after listening to their testimony, Attorney General Jose Olo Obono said the crew's ignorance surprised him. He hurled the accusation at them: "It is quite clear that your mission here was to wait for the mercenaries' action."

The Armenians arrived in Equatorial Guinea in January this year. Their Antonov-12 aircraft was hired the following month by Nick du Toit, the South African former soldier turned businessman who risks the death penalty for allegedly leading the botched coup plot.

From the time they arrived in the tiny central African country, the Armenians flew out of Equatorial Guinea once on board the Antonov, bound for Democratic Republic of Congo where they were to deliver cargo picked up at N'Dola in Zambia, they told the court. Merz had given them the instructions for that trip, they said in separate testimonies.

The flight crew said the shipment was never delivered to DRC because the airport they were bound for there was closed. They said they returned to Malabo with nothing in the hold.

Du Toit told the court Monday that the Antonov was to have picked up ammunition for security agents at mines in DRC. The crew members said they were unaware of what their payload was to have been.

The Armenians are on trial alongside eight South Africans and four Equato-Guineans, all accused of complicity in a plot to topple Obiang, who has been in power since 1979.

Obiang announced their arrests on March 9. The arrests came days before some 70 men were detained when their plane stopped off in Zimbabwe, allegedly en route to Equatorial Guinea for the coup. The group arrested in Zimbabwe has consistently said it was on its way to DRC to protect diamond mines.

A Zimbabwe magistrate is expected to hand down verdicts on Friday when the trial resumes of the suspected mercenaries held in Harare. They are led by Briton Simon Mann, a close friend of the son of British former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Mark Thatcher, who was arrested Wednesday in South Africa and accused of involvement in the increasingly complex alleged coup plot.

Du Toit is so far the only one of the 18 defendants on trial in Equatorial Guinea to admit any involvement in a coup plot.

(GI-Photolur photo: Mark Thatcher's home was the focus of media attention in Constantia, Cape Town where he was placed under arrest on Wednesday.)
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