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Zimbabwe 'alert' over seized jet

United States
State Department

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Zimbabwe's government says it has put its army on full alert after seizing a U.S.-registered cargo plane that officials say was carrying 64 suspected mercenaries and a cargo of military gear.

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman said the aircraft had no connection to the U.S. government, and the company listed as the plane's owner said the aircraft was sold recently.

The Boeing 727 was impounded Sunday evening in the capital Harare after authorities concluded its owners had falsely declared the cargo and passengers, who were taken into custody, police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena told CNN on Tuesday.

"An investigation to establish the true identities of the men and their ultimate mission is under way," he said. "A full statement will be issued in due course."

A government official who declined to be identified told Reuters: "We have mobilized all our security organs to get to the bottom of this case."

The jet's owner is listed in U.S. aviation records as Dodson Aviation based in Rantoul, Kansas.

Reached at a Dodson facility in South Africa, company spokesman Jim Pippin said the plane was sold to Logo Logistics in South Africa, although CNN did not immediately find a listing for the company in the national telephone directory.

The plane's exact itinerary remained uncertain Tuesday, but authorities told CNN the jet made stops in South Africa at Lanseria Airport, west of Johannesburg, and at Wonderboom Airport, north of Pretoria.

Pippin also said the plane stopped in Pietersburg to pick up a transponder, used for tracking aircraft.

U.S. officials told CNN's Charlayne Hunter-Gault the plane was headed to Equatorial Guinea.

But Pippin said Dodson Aviation was told the passengers were involved in mining operation in Burundi.

Washington critical

Zimbabwe's Home Affairs Ministry said the aircraft was carrying military gear. Items displayed for reporters included camouflage uniforms, an inflatable dinghy, portable radios and tools such as bolt cutters, but there was no indication that the aircraft carried any weapons.

Bvudzijena said those held were of "various nationalities." Sources told CNN those on board included South Africans, Angolans and Congolese.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. Embassy in Harare was looking into the matter, though there was no indication Americans were among those held.

The United States has been very critical of the government of Zimbabwe and especially President Robert Mugabe.

The United States has accused the Zimbabwe government of waging "a concerted campaign of violence, repression and intimidation, showing its disregard for human rights, the rule of law and the welfare of its citizens."

Earlier this month, Washington imposed new targeted sanctions on several companies owned by members of the Zimbabwe government.

Mugabe has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 but has drawn sharp criticism over many of his policies, including what many claim are human rights abuses targeting the opposition. (Full story)

Zimbabwe says army is on full alert after seizing U.S.-registered plane carrying 64 suspected mercenaries and a cargo of military gear.

CNN correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault contributed to this report.

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