CAPE TOWN, South Africa - Even in this crime-plagued country it stood out as a tragedy: A honeymooning couple from abroad is carjacked and the wife's body is found in their abandoned taxi the next morning.

In a twist revealed yesterday in court, however, the taxi driver, Zola Tongo confessed that it was no random act of violence - that he was hired by the husband to kill his bride.

By accepting the confession in a plea bargain, South African authorities gave credence to the driver's story but would not immediately confirm that the husband, Shrien Dewani, 31, of Britain, was being sought in the death of his wife, Anni, 28.

In a statement later, Dewani's family said the businessman was "totally innocent of any involvement in this heinous crime."

"These allegations are totally ludicrous and very hurtful to a young man who is grieving the loss of the woman he loved, his chosen life partner," the statement said, adding that Dewani was receiving trauma and bereavement counseling in Britain.

The couple, both of Indian descent, had married in India two weeks before arriving in South Africa last month.

British media reports said Dewani helps run his family's business in England - a string of nursing homes. His wife, from a wealthy Swedish family, was an engineer and part-time model, they said.

Tongo said Shrien Dewani offered 15,000 rand (about $2,100) to each person involved, but paid only 1,000 (about $145).

As a result of his plea bargain, Tongo was convicted of kidnapping, murder, aggravated robbery and obstructing justice, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was expected to testify against the other suspects, including two South Africans who were arrested soon after Anni Dewani's body was found.

Shrien Dewani has told authorities the couple was returning to their hotel from dinner and had detoured to visit an impoverished township when gunmen forced him and the taxi driver from the vehicle. Neither Shrien Dewani nor the driver was hurt.

Anni Dewani's body was found in the vehicle the next morning in another township. She had been shot in the back of the neck and had not been sexually assaulted.