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Issue 469 -- 22nd-28th January 2011
Shadowy Figure Finds A New War
By Katharine Houreld
Erik Prince, whose Blackwater Worldwide company became synonymous with private United States security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, has quietly taken on a new job, helping to train troops in lawless Somalia.
Prince is involved in a multimillion-dollar programme financed by several Arab countries to mobilize about 2000 Somali recruits to fight pirates who are terrorizing the African coast, according to a person familiar with the project and an intelligence report seen by AP.
His name has surfaced in the Somalia conflict amid the debate over how private security forces should be used in some of the world's most dangerous spots.
Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, became a symbol in Washington of contractors running amok after a series of incidents, including one in 2007 in which its guards were charged with killing 14 civilians in the Iraqi capital.
A US federal judge later dismissed the charges because the defendants' constitutional rights were violated.
Last year, Iraq's Interior Ministry gave all contractors who had worked with Blackwater at the time of the shooting a week to leave the country or face arrest for visa violations.
Somali pirates have seized ships flying under many flags, but most Governments are reluctant to send ground troops to wipe out pirate havens in a nation that has been in near-anarchy for two decades and whose weak United Nations-backed Government rules in only a few neighborhoods of the capital.
The forces now being trained are intended to help fill that void.
They will also go after a warlord linked to Islamist insurgents, one official said.
Prince's spokesman, Mark Corallo, said the Blackwater founder was interested in "helping Somalia overcome the scourge of piracy" and had advised anti-piracy efforts.
Corallo said Prince had no financial role in the project and declined to discuss his involvement.
Prince's role revives questions about the use of military contractors. Critics say it could undercut the international community's effort to train and fund Somali forces to fight al-Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgents.
The European Union is training about 2000 Somali soldiers with American support, and an African Union force of 8000 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers is propping up the Government.
Although the critics' concerns are shared by some US officials, the director of one private security company welcomed the effort and Prince's involvement.
"There are 34 nations with naval assets trying to stop piracy and it can only be stopped on land," said the director of Maritime Underwater Security Consultants, John Burnett.
"With Prince's background and rather illustrious reputation, I think it's quite possible that it might work."
Prince, now based in the United Arab Emirates, is no longer with Blackwater.
Last month, AP reported that the Somalia project encompassed training a 1000-man anti-piracy force in Somalia's northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland, and presidential guards in Mogadishu, the ruined seaside capital.
The story identified private security company Saracen International as being involved, with a former US ambassador, Pierre Prosper; a senior ex-CIA officer, Michael Shanklin; and an unidentified Muslim donor nation. Prosper and Shanklin confirmed they were working as advisers to the Somali Government.
Since then, AP has learned from officials and documents that Prince is involved and that a second 1000-man anti-piracy force is planned for Mogadishu, where insurgents battle poorly equipped Government forces.
Lafras Luitingh, the chief operating officer of Beirut-registered Saracen International, said the company had sought to keep the project secret to surprise the pirates.
He said his company signed a contract with the Somali Government in March. He declined to say whether Prince was involved in the project and said he was not part of Saracen.
Since the signing, a new Somali Government has taken office and has appointed a panel to investigate the Saracen deal and others.
Separately, the UN is quietly investigating whether the Somalia projects have broken the embargo on arms supplies to Somali factions.
The force's mission may be more than just curbing piracy.
A former US Government official said that besides targeting pirates, the new force in Puntland would go after a warlord who allegedly supplies weapons to al-Shabaab, Somalia's most feared insurgent group.
Luitingh said he had never heard of such a plan.
Luitingh was a founding member of Executive Outcomes, a South African mercenary outfit linked in the 1990s to conflicts in Sierra Leone, Angola and as far away as Papua New Guinea.