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UK move on mercenaries Print
By Michael Peel and Alec Russell in Johannesburg - May 28 2007

The UK is pressing South Africa to soften the impact of a controversial anti-mercenary bill that could stop South Africans serving in the British Army and prevent them from working for private security companies worldwide.

London wants to ensure new rules, which could stop South African citizens from fighting in foreign conflicts, do not cut short the careers of the more than 500 South Africans serving in the British armed forces, many of them in specialist areas such as engineering.
South Africa’s parliament passed the bill last year after international criticism of the role of South African mercenaries in events such as the high-profile alleged plot in 2004 to stage a coup in the oil-rich western African nation of Equatorial Guinea.

But it has yet to be signed into law by President Thabo Mbeki, who is due to meet Tony Blair, Britain’s outgoing prime minister, in South Africa later this week.

A British diplomat in South Africa said London viewed the impact of the bill “very seriously”. “We are concerned about the effect it might have on South Africans serving in the British forces and we don’t believe it’s a right way to proceed,” the diplomat said.

London has accepted the bill is now likely to become law, but it hopes soon to send government lawyers to discuss the implementation of a clause that requires South African soldiers serving in overseas armies to seek authorisation from the Pretoria government.

When the bill was passed Mosiuoa Lekota, South Africa’s defence minister, argued it was aimed at stopping mercenaries subverting democracy in Africa and he defended South Africa’s right to ban its citizens from fighting in the British Army.

“If Her Majesty’s government was engaged in or getting into a conflict that is inconsistent with our law [which is based on the demands of the constitution], we would say we are not going to do that. And that we will regulate,” he said.

But South African officials are now hinting that the disagreement could be resolved amicably without having to rewrite the bill.

The proposed law has already been revised after protests that its extra-territorial reach would potentially have allowed foreign executives of security companies employing South Africans in conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan to be arrested if they entered South Africa.
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