Seychelles coup attempt: as intriguing as a spy thriller

The mysterious international connections behind the coup attempt in the tiny Seychelles last November parallel - and almost outstrip - a spy thriller.

Well-known mercenaries like ''Mad Mike'' Hoare and Col. Jerry Puren are reported to have set out to ambush the Seychelles Cabinet while it was in session. Apparently their plan was then to seize Radio Seychelles and declare they had taken over on behalf of ousted President James Mancham.

The mercenaries led about 45 men on their mission to the tiny socialist republic. But their troops never got beyond the airport. A customs agent thwarted the plot when he saw a gun barrel sticking out of some children's toys in a suitcase.

The ''coup'' turned into a six-hour airport gun battle. Most of the mercenaries escaped by hijacking an Air India plane to South Africa - a crime for which a South African court this week ordered them to go on trial in March.

Many accounts of the coup, code-named ''Operation Angela,'' have appeared in the South African press. One reportedly discussed the finances for the coup, which apparently have been traced to a Swiss bank account.

There is another report that Adnan Khashoggi, an Arab who allegedly earns some of his income selling arms and who reportedly had close ties with former President Mancham, planned to open a casino complex in the Seychelles. Many Seychellois also are convinced that the South African government played some sort of a role in the coup attempt.

One reason other governments are highly interested in the Seychelles' is its geographic position: It sits in the vital oil-shipping routes between the Gulf and the Cape of Good Hope. And the US naval base at Diego Garcia is not far away. Any coup in this region has global implications.

When the mercenaries' trial opens, the press will probably focus on Martin Dollinchek, who says he is a South African intelligence officer attached to the Durban office of the Bureau of State Security (BOSS). Mr. Dollinchek says he has known Mr. Hoare since 1974 and was a member of an eight-man team that preceded the mercenaries to the islands.

South Africa's attorney-general is expected to delve into the background of Mr. Puren, Hoare's right-hand man in the coup. Puren, a South African, was once Air Force commander to former Prime Minister Moise Tshombe of the Congo (now Zaire). And he, too, reportedly worked for BOSS.

Another touchy avenue the prosecution is almost certain to investigate is the links between James Mancham and South Africa prior to June 1977, when France Albert Rene seized power from the former president.

Other aspects on which the investigation will probably focus are: South African Airways' practice of stopping over in the Seychelles on flights to Hong Kong and Japan, and former South African Secretary of Information Escel Rhoodie's frequent flights to the Seychelles for talks with Mancham.

During the recent South African ''slush fund'' scandal, Rhoodie claimed Mancham accepted bribes from South Africa in exchange for reports on secret Organization of African Unity (OAU) meetings.

A former BOSS agent, Gordon Winter, reinforces these charges in his just-published book on the intelligence service. He alleges that Rhoodie and Mike Geldenhuys, South Africa's current chief commissioner of police, convinced President Mancham that the OAU was his enemy. He says Mancham began to work with BOSS and that Mancham gave South African Airways landing rights in the islands for $180,000.

Rhoodie also reportedly wanted Mancham's help in obtaining Seychelles passports for white South Africans.

The staff at the stylish Mahe Beach Hotel remember Mr. Rhoodie and also the arms dealer Mr. Khashoggi, who invariably shared the suite adjoining Mr. Rhoodie.

Some local businessmen claim Khashoggi and some of his friends were going to buy the place and turn it into ''another Acapulco.'' A South African source says he also wanted to create an island tax haven and offshore banking facility, and perhaps develop a base for international arms deals.

When Rene, a socialist, seized power, Khashoggi's ambitions were dashed, as were South Africa's hopes for a larger foothold in the Indian Ocean. Neither could the West count on the Seychelles. Rene declared a policy of nonalignment.

After a failed attempt to oust Rene in 1979, Seychelles Defense Minister Olgilvie Berlouis accused Khashoggi of plotting the coup with Mancham and South Africa.

Rene claims he has proof the coup plot called for a new government was to be flown from Nairobi to the Seychelles. Khashoggi reportedly owns a large ranch in Kenya.

Kenya has leaned toward the West in recent years, and the US Navy has military facilities in the port of Mombasa.

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