By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - British mercenary Simon Mann may be one of the luckiest foiled coup plotters in history.
The soldier of fortune expected to spend the rest of his days rotting in a tropical dungeon for his role in an attempted African putsch in 2004 that went horribly awry.
Two years after he got an improbable pardon from Equatorial Guinea's strongman President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo for his bid to overthrow him, Mann has returned to the oil-rich west African nation three times a free man.
Instead of the vast petro-dollars he expected, Mann wound up spending over 5 years in grim prisons in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea, becoming a subject of both fascination and ridicule in the process.
But he is now profiting from the fiasco with a book about the affair, "Cry Havoc," in which he gives his side of a sordid tale that involved Mark Thatcher, the son of the former British prime minister, 69 desperadoes and an audacious plot.
"I don't fancy myself as a freedom fighter at all. But I felt at the time that the government was a very repressive one and that therefore it was legitimate to try and do something about it," Mann told Reuters in a phone interview.
"The major factor for wanting to do the job was this very simple double-whammy. Here was this terrible tyrant as he seemed at the time and with that the opportunity to make a lot of money. And that's why I wanted to do it," he said.
Mann claims to have enjoyed military success as a mercenary in the battled-scarred African states of Angola and Sierra Leone by helping the governments there quell rebel movements.
But Equatorial Guinea's Obiang, who is now Africa's longest-serving leader, was a far bigger fish and one who knew something about coups, having taken power in the former Spanish colony via one in 1979.
The plot to replace Obiang with an exiled political activist was foiled when Mann and his comrades-in-arms were arrested on a runway in the Zimbabwe capital Harare when they made a stopover en route to their target.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was reportedly thrilled with his catch: a former soldier of the hated British colonial power trying to topple a fellow African leader.
Mann believes that U.S. intelligence spilled the beans about the coup plan so Washington could cozy up to Africa's third largest oil producer -- a charge for which he has no evidence.
He did hard time in Mugabe's prisons and in 2008 was extradited to Equatorial Guinea, where he says in his book he expected to be executed.
Instead he was pardoned.
"I honestly don't know why I got pardoned ... but I had worked very hard in prison to help the Equatorial Guinean authorities," Mann said.
He provided information at his trial and intensive interrogations about his fellow coup plotters including Thatcher, who he says abandoned him to the wolves.
Mann says he tried to be useful in other ways.
"What happened was when I was in prison we had many conversations about their security and so they did ask me to write a paper along the lines of poacher turned gamekeeper, which I did," he said.
He has since returned to Equatorial Guinea three times and the first time he met with Obiang himself to thank him for his pardon and release in late 2009.
He denies press reports that he is now working for Obiang, whose government still gets low marks in areas like transparency and democracy.
"I had a very nice meeting with him, it was very pleasant, but it was very weird with the whole setup as you can imagine," Mann said with a laugh.
Mann has nothing but contempt for his fellow coup plotters who escaped serious punishment. Thatcher paid a fine in South Africa, where he was a resident at the time, for violating that country's anti-foreign mercenary laws.
"Those guys didn't do anything to help me at all. They didn't even send me a post card. And to me that was an act of betrayal," Mann said.
He does have some sage advice for Thatcher, spoken from hard experience.
"What goes around comes around, if you behave like a complete asshole at some point it will catch up to you."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)