Equatorial Guinea has detained a French military helicopter, with the vice president claiming it landed without authorization after violating the African state’s airspace. France has denied any wrongdoing.

Vice President Teodoro Obiang Mangue said the aircraft was a “French military reconnaissance helicopter” which landed at Bata International Airport, despite having no authorization and allegedly breaching Equatorial Guinea’s airspace.

“This demonstrates once again the intention of France to destabilize the Republic of Equatorial Guinea,” Mangue tweeted on Thursday over the incident.

Un helicóptero de reconocimiento militar francés viola el espacio aéreo de Guinea ecuatorial Y Aterriza en el aeropuerto internacional de bata sin ninguna autorización Esto demuestra una vez más las Intención de Francia de desestabilizar la República de Guinea ecuatorial

The helicopter was carrying six unarmed French soldiers, according to a statement from French military spokesman Colonel Pascal Ianni cited by Reuters. Ianni denied that France had any intent to harm Equatorial Guinea. 

“The authorities in Equatorial Guinea decided to detain the helicopter. The issue is being resolved at the diplomatic level,” Ianni stated.

The helicopter incident comes amid rapidly growing tensions between the two countries after an embezzlement scandal involving Mangue.

France’s top appeals court upheld a guilty verdict against Mangue, son of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, on Wednesday, over his conviction for embezzlement and money laundering. The VP had been handed a three-year suspended sentence and a 30-million-euro ($33 million) fine at the end of his trial in absentia in 2020.

The case centered around Mangue’s luxury residence on Avenue Foch in Paris – a mansion which reportedly boasts 101 rooms, a gym, a hair-dressing studio, and a disco with a cinema screen. The lavish building was valued by the NGO Transparency International – one of the parties to bring forward the case against Mangue – at around 150 million euros.

Mangue was indicted and tried in absentia in France on several counts of corruption and money laundering. In response, Equatorial Guinea filed a case against France in the International Court of Justice for breaching the diplomatic immunity of its representatives and premises, but ultimately lost its challenge. Mangue’s subsequent conviction resulted in the seizure of the Paris mansion, as well as 17 luxury cars.

On Wednesday, a French court rejected the VP’s last available appeal. Under French law, this means the money from the sale of the seized assets will now be directed towards the people of Equatorial Guinea, likely via NGOs or France’s development aid fund.

The court ruling came only days after another international scandal involving the VP, this one in the UK. Equatorial Guinea shut down its embassy in London after sanctions were imposed by the British government on Mangue over claims that he blew $500 million on properties, cars, and other items, as part of a jet-setting lifestyle fueled by corrupt behavior and the solicitation of bribes.

Equatorial Guinea called the UK’s sanctions a breach of “the principle of international law.”

Mangue has faced a long string of global corruption charges. In 2011, the US Justice Department went to court to seize $70 million of his US assets, including a Gulfstream jet, yachts, cars, and Michael Jackson memorabilia.

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