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Mercenary trial hints S. Africa may have played role in Seychelles coup

The end of a long and expensive trial probing last year's failed coup attempt in the Seychelles has landed South Africa squarely in the courtroom of international opinion.

Questions about Pretoria's role in efforts to destabilize hostile governments of this region - in this case the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean - have been heightened rather than laid to rest in the courtroom drama just completed.

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For 100 days the small army of 43 mercenaries defended themselves against charges that they hijacked a jet for their return to South Africa, after their coup bid was foiled at the Seychelles airport. The coup attempt resulted in two deaths.

The testimony revealed one salient point, says oppositon member of Parliament Ray Swart: ''There was a belief in the minds of those involved that they had the support of sections of the South African administration.''

Indeed, although there will be no formal verdict on South African involvement in the affair, the mercenaries left a string of unanswered accusations that make a strong case against the government.

Mr. Swart says the opposition Progressive Federal Party will press in Parliament for answers from the government. However, debate was not allowed earlier this year while the case was before the courts, and that ruling could be extended should appeals now follow.

The South African court has rejected the argument that the pilot of the Air India jet brought the mercenaries voluntarily back to South Africa. All but one of the 43 mercenaries have been found guilty of breaking at least one of the four anti-hijacking laws they were charged with. Their leader, Col. Mike Hoare, was convicted on three of the four counts.

Sentencing is yet to come, and its severity will probably determine in the eyes of the world whether justice was done. The three counts all carry five- to 30-year sentences.

It was light treatment of the mercenaries by the South African authorities that first suggested the government here had something to hide. Only five were charged initially.

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But an international uproar and threats of losing air links with the West played a role in pressuring Pretoria to arrest all the mercenaries and charge them with violations of civil aviation law.

Six of the mercenaries were captured in the Seychelles and tried for treason. Four already have been sentenced to death and two to long jail terms.

There has been no suggestion that Pretoria directly plotted or carried out the coup bid. But the available evidence suggests the government was aware of the plan, given it was largely staged from here, and that it provided some assistance.

* Colonel Hoare testified that arms for the coup, including 60 Russian AK-47 rifles, were delivered to him by the South African Defense Force. He presented in court as proof a receipt for the arms from the Defense Force.

Hoare claimed to have met with officials from the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the Defense Force in planning the coup, and claimed he was told by an NIS officer that the plan had been approved by the Cabinet.

* Mercenary Martin Dolinchek, captured by the Seychelles authorities during the coup bid, admitted he was a member of the NIS and also claimed members of the Defense Force and the intelligence service were aware of the coup plan.

The NIS has said Mr. Dolincheck had left the service prior to the Seychelles affair, but Dolinchek's wife was recently reported to be still receiving her husband's NIS paycheck.

* Testimony of others, largely based on hearsay, indicated fairly widespread belief among the mercenaries that the government was aware of their venture.

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