South Africa will review tough mercenary laws to try to dissuade citizens from becoming embroiled in war zones like Iraq, President Thabo Mbeki said on Friday.
Mbeki's statement followed a high-profile court case involving former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's son, who admitted last month to a role in a foiled mercenary coup plot in West Africa. Other defendants included South Africans.
South Africans, many trained in apartheid-era special forces, have been involved in a series of mercenary operations abroad, becoming a thorn in the side of the government as it tries to promote peace and security across the continent.
"In the coming year ... (we will) review the Foreign Military Assistance Act in order to discourage, for their own good and the good of the country, those who seek to profit from conflict and human suffering such as in Iraq," Mbeki said in his state of the nation address at the opening of parliament.
Existing South African legislation, dating from 1998, bars civilians from any involvement in foreign conflicts except in humanitarian operations, although a South African government committee can give approval for deployments.
At least 11 South Africans, most of them security contractors, have been killed working in Iraq since April 2003.
South African mercenaries have shown up in civil wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, Ivory Coast and as far afield as Papua New Guinea, but the war in Iraq and its aftermath has created new opportunities.
Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota said in October South African soldiers were quitting their posts or going absent without leave to take up lucrative jobs in Iraq in contravention of South Africa's anti-mercenary laws.
"In terms of the Foreign Military Assistance Act this is a transgression, particularly for the serving members of the national defence force and other security agencies," he said.
Lekota said at the time that around 100 former and current South African soldiers were working for international security agencies in Iraq, earning up to $12,000 a month -- many times what most could expect to earn back home.
An estimated several hundred South Africans, including ex-soldiers, work in Iraq. Security companies operating in Iraq frequently emphasise they are not acting as mercenary groups, but as legitimate companies supplying security personnel.
In last month's South African court case over the failed West African mercenary coup plot, Mark Thatcher pleaded guilty to a role in the plot against Equatorial Guinea's government under a plea bargain to avoid prison.
The Cape High Court agreed to a deal for him to pay a fine of 3 million rand or face five years in jail in South Africa, in addition to a further 4-year prison sentence suspended for five years.
Mark Thatcher admitted attempting to contravene South Africa's anti-mercenary legislation by agreeing to charter a helicopter, for which he paid a total of $275,000.
Thatcher was the most prominent of scores of people charged in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea in connection with the failed coup bid last year.
South Africa's anti-mercenary law was introduced to stem destabilising mercenary activity in other African countries, but it has failed to deter some soldiers of fortune from plying their trade abroad. Critics say only a handful of people have been brought to book.
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