Links have been discovered between senior American military officials and the failed coup plot in Equatorial Guinea that has left Sir Mark Thatcher facing trial in South Africa.
Theresa Whelan, a member of the Bush administration in charge of African affairs at the Pentagon, twice met a London-based businessman, Greg Wales, in Washington before the coup attempt. Mr Wales has been accused of being one of its organisers, but has denied any involvement.
A US defence official told Newsweek magazine yesterday: "Mr Wales mentioned in passing _ there might be some trouble brewing in Equatorial Guinea. Specifically, he had heard from some business associates of his that wealthy citizens of the country were planning to flee in case of a crisis."
The regime of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea has accused the US of backing the plot, but the Pentagon denies supporting it. US officials say it was Mr Wales who made all the approaches to them.
Equatorial Guinea official sources claim that last November, when the plot was in its early stages, an Old Etonian mercenary, Simon Mann, paid Mr Wales about $8,000. Mann was subsequently jailed for seven years in Zimbabwe on charges linked to the coup plot.
A few days after the alleged payment, Mr Wales went to Washington for a dinner and conference organised by an influential group of US "private military companies", the IPOA (International Peace Operations Association).
Ms Whelan told the group the Pentagon was keen to see them operate in Africa, saying: "Contractors are here to stay in supporting US national security objectives overseas." They were cheaper, and saved the use of US forces in peacekeeping and training.
She added: "The US can be supportive in trying to ameliorate regional crises without necessarily having to put US troops on the ground, which is often a very difficult political decision _ Sometimes we may not want to be very visible."
IPOA's members include MPRI, a company formed by retired generals. MPRI had already been allowed to compile a survey of Equatorial Guinea's military weaknesses on President Obiang's behalf, overcoming initial objections by the Clinton administration that it would help prop up a dictator.
MPRI persuaded the Pentagon it would be in the US national interest to allow the survey to be done, although the company never went ahead with a planned contract to strengthen Mr Obiang's army.
Mr Wales made his first contact with Ms Whelan at the dinner. The following January his firm, the Sherbourne Foundation, was paid another $35,000 by the coup plotters, according to Equatorial Guinea.
Mr Wales then organised another meeting at the Pentagon with Ms Whelan. This came on the eve of the day originally planned for the coup, February 19. The Pentagon says the meeting in "mid-to-late February" ranged over many African topics, and that Mr Wales's hints were so general that they did not call for any action to be taken.
Mr Wales, who denies any involvement in the coup plot, has refused to comment on any of these fresh allegations.
The Obiang regime has complained that the US did not warn it of the coup plot, although it received intelligence from South Africa.
The February 19 plan is said to have been aborted after a hired aircraft broke down. The plotters then acquired an old former US Air National Guard Boeing, built to a military specification, that was flown over from Kansas with a crew from Florida for a second coup attempt. But the seller, the US firm Dodson Aviation, says there was no US government involvement in the deal.
Both the US and Britain have extensive oil interests in Equatorial Guinea which, in the words of one US official, is "the new Kuwait".
The Texas company Marathon is building a huge liquefied natural gas plant, of which the British gas firm BG plans to buy much of the output for the next 17 years.
There is a good deal of unofficial sympathy in US military circles for the coup plotters. One of those present at the original IPOA dinner said yesterday, requesting anonymity: "Ethically, you have to want to see Obiang removed.
"It's a real indictment of the international community that they've failed to get rid of him."
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