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Private jet loaded with fake gold unfurls a mystery in 2 countries

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JOHANNESBURG — When Zambian authorities searched a private jet that arrived from Egypt last week, they found a mysterious trove that included millions of dollars in cash, hundreds of bars of what appeared to be gold, and weapons.

They arrested 12 people, six of them Egyptian citizens, and the haul stirred wild speculation in both countries. Zambian officials launched an inquiry into what they called a gold scam, eliciting a jittery response from Egyptian authorities.

Zambian officials said the gold was, in fact, fake — made of copper and zinc, probably in order to fleece foreign buyers.

“This has been a clear case of scamming, gold scamming,” Nason Banda, director general of the country’s Drug Enforcement Commission, told a news conference days after the Aug. 14 raid. He said investigators at the airport had been tipped off about the plane’s suspicious cargo.

Egyptian media outlets reported that several members of Egypt’s military and security services appeared to be among those arrested. Egyptian authorities seemed eager to play down the plane’s seizure: Two journalists covering the episode were detained in Cairo without charge on Saturday, then released on Sunday.

They were the latest of at least 200 journalists to be arrested under the decadelong rule of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whose government and security services own or control most of the Egyptian press. El-Sissi’s government, which has attempted to polish the country’s human rights record recently with overtures toward its political opposition and releases of several high-profile political prisoners, has not commented on the events of the past week.

Zambia and Egypt have close ties, even though Zambia is often celebrated for its democratic governance and Egypt is often criticized as repressive. In June, el-Sissi visited Zambia to strengthen regional trade between northern and southern Africa.

The seized jet, a Bombardier Global Express that can seat up to 16 passengers, was carrying nearly $5.7 million in U.S. currency, 602 bars of the fake gold, five pistols and 126 rounds of ammunition. Zambian officials also seized a second, smaller passenger aircraft owned by a Zambian operator, which was believed to be linked to the first plane, Banda said.

In Zambia, the ballooning scandal has become a test of the country’s resolve to crack down on corruption and the impunity of the political elite. Authorities led news tours of the seized planes and offered public assurances that the cash would not go missing, in a show of the country’s push under President Hakainde Hichilema to root out corruption.

The six Egyptian citizens arrested did not appear in court in Lusaka alongside the Zambian detainees last week, with their lawyers saying they were ill, according to local news media reports. Zambian officials have declined to identify the Egyptian detainees. A Dutch national and a Spanish national were also detained in the raid, Zambian officials said.

Another court hearing is scheduled for Monday, but it was not clear whether the Egyptians would appear.

In Egypt, despite a near blackout on state news media, independent journalists set out to uncover the identities of the Egyptians detained on the plane.

A few independent media organizations published the names of the Egyptian defendants. Then an independent investigative outlet called Matsada2sh, which is Arabic slang for Don’t Believe It, reported that three of them appeared to be former or current security officials, including a police officer, a military general and a former military attaché at Egypt’s embassy in the United States.

In its sparse coverage of the incident, Egypt’s state news agency quoted an anonymous source as saying that the plane had traveled through Cairo International Airport, where it had “passed all safety and security inspections.”

On Saturday, security officials forced their way into the home of one of the journalists who had covered the plane’s journey for Matsada2sh, according to another employee of the site, who asked that his name not be published out of security concerns.

The agents forced the journalist, Karim Asaad, to delete two posts on the outlet’s Facebook page reporting that former or current members of the Egyptian security establishment were being detained in Zambia. He was then detained.

Another employee of the same site, a woman working for its social media team, was also arrested on Saturday evening. Her name was not immediately released.

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