Johannesburg — ''What is it that the government does not want disclosed about this distasteful excursion into the Seychelles?'' wondered one of South Africa's English newspapers in an editorial Dec. 4.
South Africa's handling of a group of mercenaries arrested in this country after a coup attempt against the government of the Seychelles has raised a storm of questions about South Africa's role in the affair.
Prime Minister P. W. Botha denies South Africa initiated or approved the venture, but Seychelles President Albert Rene accuses it of complicity in the attack.
After a shoot-out at the Seychelles airport Nov. 26, where the mercenaries staged the abortive coup, the group returned to Durban, South Africa. President Rene has said 52 mercenaries were involved and that eight of them were already in the country when the others landed at the airport.
The South African government arrested the 44 mercenaries who returned to Durban on an Air India Boeing 707, but subsequently released 39 without charges. Five of the group of 44 have been charged with kidnapping.
Most of the mercenaries are reportedly from South Africa. ''From what we know , the whole operation was masterminded in South Africa and although the minister of police has denied any official South African complicity, we needed to know how it is possible for this sort of recruitment to take place in South Africa without the authorities having knowledge of it,'' opposition spokesman Ray Swart said in response to the release.
Indeed, the charging of only five of the 44 mercenaries who flew in on Air India presents the impression there was a ''nod and a wink'' from the South African government toward the venture, says Peter Vale of the South African Institute of Internal Affairs.
The assumption here had been that the Air India plane had been hijacked, and that alone would result in all the mercenaries aboard being charged. The legal question has been raised here, however, of whether the pilot of the Air India plane was ''persuaded'' or ''forced'' to fly to Durban.
The South African government has provided little information on the entire affair. When asked by a reporter to explain the release of the 39 mercenaries, Minister of Police Louis le Grange said, ''You tell me what laws they broke in South Africa.''
A statement from the Lawyers for Human Rights group here said the information surrounding the affair suggested there should be a South African investigation of whether the plane was hijacked; whether there was incitement of and conspiracy in unlawful killings, although outside the jurisdiction of the South African court; whether there was possession of explosives and firearms; and the possible violation of immigration regulations.
An organization called the Seychelles Resistance Movement has claimed responsibility for the coup attempt. The claim was made from London by Paul Chow , reported to be a former Seychellois journalist.