SUNDAY TIMES - Minister rescues R20 billion as plane held over body returns to SA

Minister rescues R20 billion as plane held over body returns to SA

A cargo plane at Harare's International Airport in which a dead body was found.

Pretoria had to intervene to get Zimbabwean authorities to release a plane carrying an estimated R20-billion in rand notes - and a corpse.

The cargo plane, which made an unscheduled stop at Harare a week ago, arrived at Air Force Base Waterkloof yesterday morning. The Reserve Bank confirmed the currency was safely under its control in South Africa.

Sources from Zimbabwe and South Africa confirmed that Minister of International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane talked directly to counterparts in Zimbabwe to release the plane, after Zimbabwean customs officials had demanded to inspect the cargo.

"We had to intervene at the highest level. They have agreed to release it, but were trying to score something out of us either through taxes or penalties," a source said.

Zimbabwe demanded that Western Global Airlines, the owners of an aircraft chartered by the Reserve Bank, pay penalties for landing in Harare without permission.

Under Zimbabwean law, South Africa was obliged to pay duties for cargo, which meant it had to be off-loaded and scanned. But South Africa had "curiously" resisted efforts to do so by customs officials.

"Even the paperwork was not in order," said another source.

Zimbabwe also rejected offers by South Africa to send dozens of soldiers to guard the plane, further escalating tensions, sources said.

"It's not as if we didn't have adequate security. It was a pointless and condescending attitude."

The Reserve Bank apparently dispatched a security manager to the site, although this could not be confirmed.

Defence Department spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini said yesterday that he was not aware of any request to deploy troops.

The plane flew from Entebbe airport in Uganda to Liège in Belgium on February 13. On the same day it flew to Munich, where the Reserve Bank money was loaded before the plane departed for South Africa that evening. Prior to Entebbe, the plane had been in Abuja, Nigeria, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Internal flight plans obtained by the Sunday Times reveal the flight had always been destined for Waterkloof, not Durban, as reported elsewhere.

The aircraft had landed in Harare after failing to get permission to land in Durban, Zimbabwean police said.

Meanwhile, plane-spotters reported that blood had been seen on the aircraft's fuselage in Liège already, suggesting that a suspected stowaway had boarded the plane in Africa before the Reserve Bank flight had commenced. Aviation reports say blood stains were reported to Munich Airport ground staff, who concluded that they were the result of bird strikes.

The body of the suspected stowaway was discovered when the plane landed in Harare.

Zimbabwe police spokeswoman Charity Charamba said yesterday that security services had cleared the release of the plane and crew, "which has since left for South Africa with the body and the South African rands".

The postmortem report revealed that the suspected stowaway had probably died of suffocation four days earlier. His body was decomposing and there were no external or internal injuries or fractures.

Investigators have few other clues as to his identity. They say the man was likely aged between 25 and 35. A matchbox made in Indonesia was found on him.

The Reserve Bank declined to specify how much money the plane was carrying, but bank sources said even if it was carrying only R10 notes, the cargo would have been worth at least R8-billion.

Aviation experts and former Reserve Bank officials interviewed flagged several irregularities related to the flight.

They said that normally companies such as Brinks or G4S would be used to transport large amounts of cash in cargo planes that always landed at OR Tambo International Airport.

From there, the money would be taken to the Reserve Bank's central depot in Pretoria before being transported to regional branches.

Department spokesman Clayson Monyela declined to comment on Nkoana-Mashabane's alleged involvement in releasing the plane.