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Zambia frees five Egyptians arrested on plane with guns and fake gold

LUSAKA (Reuters) - A Zambian court freed five Egyptians and one Zambian on Friday, after prosecutors dropped espionage charges against them three weeks after they arrived on a private plane with guns, bullets, cash and fake gold.

Two of the Egyptians would be rearrested on unspecified lesser charges and freed on bond, Zambia's Drug Enforcement Commission said. Five other Zambian nationals were not freed and will still face trial at the high court on charges of entering a forbidden part of the airport, a magistrate said.

The 11 men were charged on Monday by a magistrates court in the capital Lusaka in a case that has captured public attention in both Egypt and Zambia.

Zambia's Drug Enforcement Agency had found about $5.7 million in cash, five pistols, 126 rounds of ammunition and 602 suspected gold bars weighing around 127 kilograms on a plane during a search on Aug. 13.

Zambia subsequently said laboratory analysis showed the metal bars contained no gold and were mainly copper and zinc, fuelling media speculation that some of the suspects might have sought to swindle gold buyers in a fake bullion scam.

"The DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) has entered a nolle prosequi with respect to the... individuals," state prosecutor Gracilia Mulenga told the court, referring to a legal term in which a prosecutor declines to pursue charges.

The prosecutor did not provide reasons for dropping the charges.

"This is not the time to mention anything. We knew from day one that we were clean," one of the freed Egyptians told journalists outside the court.

While the initial charge sheet did not mention the aircraft or seized goods, lawyers for the defendants had said earlier that those arrested were on the plane.

Two Egyptian security sources had said the plane seized in Zambia had been inspected by authorities before leaving Cairo, but that one of the arrested Egyptians was able to board with bags that were not searched, which is now under investigation.

(Reporting by Chris Mfula; Editing by Bhargav Acharya and Peter Graff)