South Africa suspends protocol boss over wedding flight scandal

JOHANNESBURG Thu May 2, 2013 9:20am EDT

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa suspended a senior foreign ministry official on Thursday after a charter plane carrying nearly 200 guests for the wedding of a family with close ties to President Jacob Zuma used an Air Force base without proper military permission.

The scandal over Tuesday's flight from India to the Waterkloof Air Force Base near Pretoria has dominated South African media, with newspapers and radio phone-in callers accusing the wealthy Gupta family of influence peddling.

The defense ministry said it had rejected a request from the Guptas to use the base but the Indian High Commission in Pretoria then went behind its back and sought authorization from the Chief of State Protocol at the foreign ministry.

"The clearance should be rescinded and that aircraft should immediately be removed," it said in a statement.

The foreign ministry said its protocol chief, Bruce Koloane, had been suspended to "allow the department to get to the bottom of this matter", adding that no "executive authority" was granted for a civilian aircraft to land at the base.

Foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela confirmed that the flight carried some Indian state ministers arriving for the wedding.

The business empire of Gupta brothers Atul, Ajay and Rajesh covers mining, resources, aviation and technology. Two of Zuma's children have served as directors of Gupta firms, according to South Africa's companies database, and the family is a major financial backer of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

The Times newspaper labeled the scandal "Guptagate", but the New Age newspaper - owned by the Gupta family - covered the incident under the headline: "Media 'wrong' on jet-set wedding".

The ANC also called for an explanation as to how the aircraft managed to land at the base, saying it would never allow "a situation where our ports of entry and national key points are penetrated with impunity".

Officials at the Indian High Commission in Pretoria were not available to comment. Koloane did not answer his mobile phone.

(Editing by Ed Cropley)

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