In the middle of a tropical jungle on the outskirts of this town sits a cemetery with a crumbling gate, overgrown tombs and an extraordinary sight: a neatly roped-off area where 10 clean, erect headstones mark the graves of British airmen who were killed when their plane crashed here during World War II.

No one knows why a Royal Air Force Sunderland Flying Boat crashed on this isolated island June 3, 1944, en route from Lagos, Nigeria, to Libreville, Gabon, or who recovered the bodies. There are several competing accounts, but none seems supported by much evidence.

What is clear, however, is that the fliers' graves have been tended for 57 years by a succession of British officials, U.S. diplomats and oil company workers who viewed their care as a matter of respect. The caretakers' efforts, in turn, played a role in one of the more bizarre and obscure chapters in modern U.S. diplomatic history, one that is still having repercussions.

The United States has not posted an ambassador to Equatorial Guinea since 1994, a year after the last one, John E. Bennett, was accused of practicing witchcraft at the graves. Officials charged that Bennett was trying to harm President Teodoro Obiang, who seized power in 1979 and rules still.

Bennett was an outspoken critic of Obiang's human rights record and had an icy relationship with the government. He was not alone. Foreign governments put heavy pressure on Obiang to democratize his dictatorship, and he eventually complied, calling the nation's first legislative elections on Nov. 21, 1993. But the vote was boycotted by the major opposition parties and dubbed a sham by Washington.

In a recent telephone interview from Karachi, Pakistan, where he is consul general, Bennett said he spent that election day observing the voting. At one point, he found himself near the cemetery, so he went to visit, something he did monthly.

Bennett said he noticed that he was being tailed by security agents, including Armengol Ondo, the feared chief of police who is also the president's brother. When he got to the cemetery, Bennett said, "I noticed my escorts also dismounted and were flitting from one gravestone monument to the next, including Armengol, but their efforts were a camp version of Peter Sellers."

Bennett said that when he got back into his car, "I could see in the rearview mirror the gaggle [of agents] burst out of the cemetery gates, jump into their respective vehicles and take off after me once again," until he reached his residence.

Ondo then called the only foreign correspondent in Malabo, a reporter with the Spanish government news agency EFE, and accused Bennett of engaging in witchcraft. The story went out over the wire service.

The next day, Internal Security Minister Manuel Mba Ndong said police had surprised Bennett at the cemetery as he was "taking traditional [magical] medicine given to him by election-boycotting opposition parties in order that the vote would turn out badly," according to press reports from the time.

Relations between the two countries, already strained, worsened after the accusation. After Bennett departed in 1994, naming the government's most notorious torturers in his farewell address, no new ambassador was appointed. The U.S. Embassy was closed in 1996, leaving relations to be handled by the embassy in Yaounde, Cameroon.

A month after the embassy closed, large offshore oil deposits were discovered, and since then $5 billion in American investment has poured into Equatorial Guinea. Obiang, during a March trip to the United States, asked the State Department to reopen the embassy he had helped to close, saying the "lack of a U.S. diplomatic presence is definitely holding back economic growth." The U.S. government says it is studying the proposal.

Bennett, who has a son in the Army and is a veteran himself, said it was "an honor" when he was asked soon after his arrival here in 1991 to tend the graves of the British airmen. Britain had closed its embassy not long before, and the British ambassador based in Yaounde asked Bennett to assume the responsibility because the plots had fallen into disrepair.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was able to pay only a small amount for their upkeep, so Bennett paid the gardeners at his residence to work weekends to keep the site up. He had the headstones, sent years before by the British government, cleaned and had grass from the embassy lawn laid there for a commemorative ceremony with an honor guard when a U.S. warship visited Malabo in November 1991.

But when Bennett left Malabo, the graves again fell into disrepair. Then, three years ago, Simon Slater, a British civil engineer, and Ron Mann, a Scotsman who is managing construction of a methanol plant here, visited the cemetery and found beer bottles and other signs of neglect.

Appalled, they cleaned the headstones again and persuaded oil companies to give them metal casing that has been fashioned into a fence around the area.

They also traced the official record of the crash of the British seaplane, which indicated that the plane encountered a typhoon and crashed into Lake Fernando. Although the island where Malabo is located was known at the time as Fernando Po, there is no Lake Fernando.

Slater, hearing rumors that the plane had instead crashed near the beach hamlet of Baney, visited the village and found an old man who claimed to remember an airplane crash nearby when he was in school. But Slater could find no wreckage, and the old man said it had been quickly hauled away by the Spanish, who ruled the island at the time.

But, while the mystery surrounding the airplane remains, Slater and Mann, have arranged for the graves to be cared for by resident British, even after they leave. "It is a matter of respect," said Mann. "The tradition will continue."

Headstones sent by the British government mark the graves in a Malabo cemetery of 10 airmen whose plane crashed in 1944.