January 24, 2011 ·9 Comments
MOGADISHU, Somalia (NY Times) — The minister of information for the transitional federal government here said Sunday that Somalia was likely to end its relationship with Saracen International, a private security company in which South African mercenaries and the founder of Blackwater Worldwide are said to be involved.
Saracen has offered to train the beleaguered government troops and battle pirates and Islamist insurgents in Somalia, which has been steeped in civil war for two decades. But after the recent disclosure of an African Union report that said Erik Prince, Blackwater’s founder, provided seed money for the Saracen contract and was “at the top of the management chain,” many of Somalia’s biggest financial supporters, including the United States, have questioned the wisdom of the deal. Somali officials, in turn, have cooled to the idea of working with Saracen.
“At this point, our collective thinking is that this is not a good thing,” said the minister of information, Abdulkareem Jama.
“We don’t want to have anything to do with Blackwater,” he said, mentioning accusations that Blackwater employees had killed civilians in Iraq. “We need help, but we don’t want mercenaries.”
Mr. Jama’s word will not be the last concerning Saracen, whose clandestine operations have incited controversy in Somalia’s Parliament. Several representatives have accused the government of striking secret deals that could open Somalia to private security companies and worsen the nation’s instability. Other Somali officials were said to be debating, on Sunday night, how to handle Saracen.
Mr. Jama is considered one of the government’s most powerful ministers — he was the president’s chief of staff until recently — and he sits on the four-member committee that is entrusted with reviewing the Saracen contract. He said a final report would be given to Parliament this week. “Our recommendation is not to go forward with this,” he said. “This all has a bad taste.”
Somalia’s defense minister, Abdulhakim Mohamoud Haji Faqi, agreed: “We will not accept any mercenaries.”
Mr. Faqi said, however, that Somalia desperately needed to improve its security forces, which are struggling to control just a few square miles in a country that is about the size of Texas. In Mogadishu, the capital, the sky flashes a violent orange almost every night as government troops and insurgent forces shell each other by the old seaport.
Few, if any, Western nations want to send troops here, and for the time being, an 8,000-member force from the African Union is keeping the fragile Somali government afloat. Mr. Faqi said he was open to the idea of working with private security contractors to “improve the capacity” of government troops — if another country would pay for it.
Somali officials have said that some Muslim nations, which were not identified, had agreed to pay Saracen’s bill. Western officials said one of the countries was the United Arab Emirates, where Mr. Prince lives.
According to a copy of a letter dated May 15, 2010, Somalia’s previous prime minister, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, planned to authorize Saracen to begin training and equipping the Somali police. Mr. Sharmarke insists that he never wrote such a letter, and it does not appear that the final contract has been signed.
The contract lists Lafras Luitingh, a former officer in South Africa’s Civil Cooperation Bureau, an apartheid-era internal security force that was notorious for killing government opponents, as Saracen’s chief operations officer.
The Saracen deal has been shrouded in mystery from the moment that African Union officials began whispering about it in Nairobi, Kenya, in November. The company has its headquarters in Saida, Lebanon, according to Somali government records, but it appears to have been formed from the remnants of Executive Outcomes, a mercenary firm made up largely of former South African special forces.
Saracen’s Uganda subsidiary was implicated in a 2002 United Nations Security Council report in the training of rebels in Congo who went on to massacre civilians and plunder gold.
Saracen officials declined to comment Sunday, as did a spokesman for Mr. Prince. Last week, Mr. Prince’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, challenged the African Union report, saying that Mr. Prince had “no financial role” in Saracen and that he was primarily involved in humanitarian efforts and in fighting pirates in Somalia. Mr. Prince, who faces a wave of lawsuits, recently rebranded Blackwater as Xe Services.
Saracen signed a separate security-related deal with officials in Puntland, a semiautonomous, pirate-infested region of northern Somalia. According to United Nations officials, Saracen agents recently imported weapons into Puntland, a possible violation of the longstanding arms embargo on Somalia, and Saracen agents have begun training a heavily armed, antipirate militia.
Mr. Jama said he hoped that Puntland would “follow the direction of the federal government and not continue with Saracen,” but officials there recently said they were so fed up with the federal government’s lack of progress that they were going to cut their ties.
On Sunday evening, Puntland’s information minister, Abdihakim Ahmed Guled, declined to discuss Saracen, saying, “I cannot give you any information regarding this case.”
Mohammed Ibrahim contributed reporting.
Source: NY TimesFollow @somalilandpress