Safari Slovaks held in plot claim freed in Central Africa

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BANGUI: A group of Slovak nationals arrested in the Central African Republic for allegedly plotting a coup have been freed, the Bangui government said Monday, as Bratislava insisted the men were on safari.

"The latest information is the freeing on Friday of the people who were arrested," government spokesman Fidele Ngouandjika told AFP.

"We are a country of law. If no charges are pressed against suspects, then it is normal that they can go free," said the spokesman, who was unable to confirm whether the men were still in the country.

"But I repeat that these people were arrested in possession of weapons of war and they did not clearly justify their presence on Centrafrican territory.

"That is why our defense and security forces transferred them to Bangui, because there were doubts over their presence in that part of Central African Republic," he said.

Ngouandjika had earlier said that on September 1, defense forces arrested a group "of Slovakian nationality who entered Centrafrica illegally and who were plotting a coup d’etat."

In Bratislava, the government stated there had been a "misunderstanding" and that its nationals were waiting to fly home.
"There was a misunderstanding. The Slovaks were not plotting, they were hunters on a safari in the Central African Republic with legally-owned guns," Slovak foreign ministry spokesman Lubos Schwarzbacher said.

"After being arrested last Wednesday, they were released and got back their passports on Friday, and are waiting in their hotel for a flight home," he added.

Central Africa’s former communications minister Criaque Gonda told AFP late Monday that the Slovaks were regular tourists who had come to the country several times and were interested in developing a safari hunt.

"There were nine Slovaks who arrived" in Banqui on August 25, said Gonda. "It is the third time they have come to our country, they regularly get a visa at the Central African Republic’s embassy in Paris."

Gonda said he was involved with the Slovaks in developing their ideas including a safari hunt and an airline company.

"At present, they are with me. Two left yesterday (Sunday) and the seven others are taking a flight on Thursday," he said when contacted by telephone. He also said they had been arrested south of Bangui.

On Friday, the Internet site of the weekly Jeune Afrique reported the arrests of "around 10 armed people" at Nola in the Shanga region, more than 600 kilometers (370 miles) west of the capital.

Bratislava said seven of its nationals were arrested.

Ngouandjika said earlier that the Slovaks were "in the course of taking possession of a large cargo of arms and munitions" when they were arrested at Nola. He gave no details of the alleged coup plot against President Francois Bozize’s regime, but said that an inquiry was under way.

"The government is not accusing any neighboring country in this affair.

Only the inquiry, I repeat, will find out who is responsible," he added.

The Shanga region borders on the Republic of Congo. The other neighbors of the landlocked CAR are Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

The announcement of the arrests comes almost six months after the Bangui government announced a previous foiled coup plot.

On March 13, National Security Minister Jules Bernard Ouande announced to state-owned media that the authorities had foiled a "plan of attack", which he said was meant to have been carried out in the week of March 15 to 20.

Ouande said that intelligence reports had implicated former president Ange-Felix Patasse, but he did not directly accuse him of being behind a coup bid. Patasse denied any involvement.

The CAR is preparing for presidential and legislative elections in January after two delays. The polls are seen as an important step in the deeply poor and landlocked nation after a long peace process.

Bozize’s government has sought to make peace with a range of rebel groups, most of which have signed up to the process, following years of insurgency, military uprisings and coup attempts.

General Bozize came to power himself in the coup that ousted Patasse in 2003 and was then elected president in 2005.

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