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By Sinclaire Solomon

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, Nov. 8) – Five senior executives of the African telecommunications company whose founder and CEO is making a bid to buy Telikom PNG have been arrested in their country for alleged illegal dealing in foreign currency amounting to more than US$4.9 million (about K15 million).

But an executive of the parent company, Econet Wireless International, said in Port Moresby last night the arrests were part of President Robert Mugabe's oppressive regime aimed at silencing his critics ahead of national elections next year.

The arrests and the accompanying publicity in the government-controlled Zimbabwe Herald newspaper last week come at an awkward time for Econet Wireless International - only days before the PNG Cabinet decides to approve or shelve plans to sell Telikom to the company.

Econet Wireless International confirms the arrests but insists the executives were not connected with the Telikom sale.

The PNG Opposition says the arrests raise serious questions about the Somare Government's relationship with the Zimbabwe company.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Port Moresby says the Government would do well to put to rest the general concern and suspicion of underhand dealing surrounding the proposed sale.

The Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has officially charged three directors of VMobile (formerly Econet Wireless Nigeria) with corruption.

The five executives belong to Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, which has no connection with the current Telikom sales negotiations. They are chief executive officer Douglas Mboweni; executive director, customer services and billing, John Gardon Pattison; and senior officials Nyasha Zhou, Anthony Eastwood and Tawanda Nyambirai.

The Herald newspaper reported on its website on Friday that the Econet bosses were arrested last Tuesday and were still in police custody on Thursday.

The five are expected to appear in court soon.

Econet Wireless International is regarded by many in PNG as the preferred bidder by Independent Public Business Corporation (IPBC) for the 51 % of Telikom.

The protracted negotiations however, had been put on hold following mounting criticisms from the Opposition that Econet does not have neither the expertise nor the financial resources to buy and manage PNG's sole telecommunication provider.

In the interim, Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare's Government has commissioned international accounting firm, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, to do a due diligence report on Econet before NEC makes a decision which is due this week.

The Herald newspaper quoted Zimbabwe police chief spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena as confirming the arrests and said investigations were still in progress.

He said they would all be charged in their capacities as directors of the mobile phone service provider.

"But one of them, Mr Mboweni, will further be charged as an individual for illegally dealing in foreign currency," said Mr Bvudzijena.

It is alleged that between March 2000 and September this year, Econet Wireless Zimbabwe bought more than US$1.3 million on the black market.

"There was also another US$3.6 million which was due to Econet from several companies that were outside the country," said Mr Bvudzijena.

He said the five suspects prevented the money from being remitted to Zimbabwe and it was deposited in offshore accounts.

Details of how Econet earned the money were not immediately available.

The Herald also reported that businessman and politician James Makamba, who is Telecel chairman, and two other Telecel Zimbabwe bosses, were also picked up on Tuesday on allegations of externalising over US$70 million.

The other two Telecel officials taken into custody are managing director Anthony Carter and secretary Edward Mutsvairo.

The Telecel bosses are still in police custody while investigations continue before they are brought before the courts.

November 9, 2004

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