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Two top South African defence officials resign

Two top South African defence officials have tendered their resignations, the military said Friday amid reports of mercenaries being hired to fly the president and mechanical trouble on VIP planes.

Defence Secretary Mpumi Mpofu and air force boss Carlo Gagiano have both given their letters of resignation to the minister of defence, ministry spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini said.

“It is somehow related to the problems that we’ve faced in the air force in regard to VIP flights,” he told AFP.

The defence ministry is charged with operating flights for the president and other top officials.

Beeld newspaper reported Friday that charter pilots who flew President Jacob Zuma to the UN General Assembly in New York in September had been convicted of involvement in the failed 2004 coup attempt against Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Nguema, Africa’s longest-ruling leader, was the target of a botched bid to overthrow him and install an exiled opposition leader at the helm of the oil-rich nation. Seventy-nine foreigners were arrested in connection with the plot.

The paper said Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu was livid when she learned that two of the convicted conspirators had been hired to fly the president.

The weekly Mail & Guardian also reported the resignations were sparked by a diplomatically embarrassing incident in which mechanical problems grounded the plane that was supposed to take Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to an official visit to Finland last month.

The minister’s spokesman told the paper there had been a “hot environment” in the military since the fiasco.

“We have got an air force that doesn’t have planes to transport VIPs, we’ve got a procurement process that’s not producing planes and we’ve got a deputy president who cannot honour an official visit because there’s no plane. Naturally everyone will be unhappy,” spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya said.

“You can’t play marbles with the life of the deputy president of the country.”

The minister has accepted defence secretary Mpofu’s resignation but is still mulling that of air force boss Gagiano, the newspapers reported.

Dlamini told AFP he could not confirm whether the minister had accepted either resignation or what reasons the officials gave.

The opposition Democratic Alliance called on the minister to publicly explain the resignations.

The air force’s VIP flights have been plagued by a series of recent problems.

Motlanthe was also forced to make an emergency landing two years ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in September his plane had to circle Wellington while pilots flying him to the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand dealt with a warning light.

The Bombardier that was to take Motlanthe to Finland had been privately rented, a practice the military has been forced to adopt because of a shortage of VIP planes.