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Thatcher's son charged in alleged plot

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's son, a onetime race car driver whose business career has been dogged by accusations of questionable arms deals and shady ventures, was charged yesterday with helping finance a foiled coup plot in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

Mark Thatcher, 51, was arrested at his Cape Town home and taken before Wynberg Magistrate's Court to be charged with violating the country's Foreign Military Assistance Act.

"We have evidence, credible evidence, and information that he was involved in the attempted coup," said Sipho Ngwema, a police spokesman. "We refuse that South Africa be a springboard for coups in Africa and elsewhere."

Authorities in several African nations announced in March that they had foiled an attempt to overthrow President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, who is widely accused of torture and other abuses while ruling a nation that has become the continent's third-biggest oil producer.

Magistrate Awie Kotze placed Thatcher under house arrest and gave him until Sept. 8 to post bail of $300,000. Thatcher, who nervously tapped a pen in his palm during the proceeding, smiled and said, "Thank you," before he was led away to be driven home.

Outside court, Thatcher's lawyers said he was arrested on suspicion of providing financing for a helicopter linked to the coup plot.

"Mr. Thatcher is not guilty of any allegations," attorney Alan Bruce-Brand told reporters. "He has nothing to hide and is already cooperating with authorities."

There was no immediate reaction from Thatcher's mother, who was thought to be in the United States.

Police raided Thatcher's home in the upscale suburb of Constantia shortly after 7 a.m. and investigators searched his records and computers.

Hours later, he was driven away in a police vehicle. But his court appearance was delayed when he was robbed of his shoes, jacket, and cellphone in a crowded holding cell, according to a court official who witnessed the attack. Police recovered the items.

Equatorial Guinea put 19 people on trial Monday in the alleged plot. One other defendant died in custody under suspicious circumstances. Seventy suspected mercenaries are on trial separately in Zimbabwe.

Equatorial Guinea's justice minister, Ruben Mangue, sidestepped questions about seeking Thatcher's extradition. "Let's first give an opportunity to the South African authorities and the South African legal system to handle the situation," he told BBC radio.

The alleged ringleader of the plot, former British special forces soldier Simon Mann, was among those arrested March 7 in Zimbabwe, where authorities said they stopped a planeload of mercenaries going to Equatorial Guinea.

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