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Zimbabwe seizes jet with 'suspected mercenaries' aboard


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Zimbabwean authorities show what they found on a seized U.S. registered cargo plane at Harare airport, Monday.

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(CNN) -- Authorities in Zimbabwe have taken 64 people identified as "suspected mercenaries" into custody and seized a U.S.-registered jetliner carrying military material, a police spokesman said Monday.

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

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

The Boeing 727 was impounded Sunday evening in Harare after authorities concluded its owners had falsely declared its cargo and passengers, Bvudzijena said. Its origin and destination were not released.

The jet's owner is listed in U.S. aviation records as Rantoul, Kansas-based Dodson Aviation. But Butch Holtgrieve, a company spokesman, said the aircraft was recently sold to a South African company which he did not identify.

Zimbabwe's Home Affairs Ministry said the aircraft was carrying military material. 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."

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)

CNN correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault contributed to this report.


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