MOGADISHU, Somalia — The minister of information for the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia said Sunday that his government would most likely sever 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 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 donors, including the United States, have questioned the wisdom of the deal. Somali officials, in turn, have cooled to working with Saracen.
“At this point, our collective thinking is that this is not a good thing,” said Abdulkareem Jama, Somalia’s minister of information.
“We don’t want to have anything to do with Blackwater,” he added, mentioning the charges that Blackwater operatives recklessly killed civilians in Iraq. “We need help, but we don’t want mercenaries.”
Mr. Jama’s word will hardly be the last on Saracen, whose clandestine operations have already sparked a ruckus in Somalia’s parliament, where several representatives accused the government of striking secret deals that could open the floodgates to private security companies and worsen Somalia’s instability. But Mr. Jama is considered one of the most powerful ministers — he was the president’s chief of staff until recently — and he sits on the four-member committee entrusted with reviewing the Saracen contract. He said a final report will be given to parliament later this week and that “our recommendation is not to go forward with this. This all has a bad taste.”
Somalia’s defense minister, Abdulhakim Mohamoud Haji Faqi, made a similar point. “We will not accept any mercenaries,” he said Sunday.
But Mr. Abdulhakim added that Somalia desperately needed to improve its security forces, who are struggling to control just a few square miles in a country nearly the size of Texas. Just about every night in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, the sky flashes a violent orange 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-strong African Union force is the sole bulwark keeping the fragile Somali government alive. Defense Minister Faqi said he was open to the idea of working with private security contractors to “improve the capacity” of government troops — if another country could pay for it. Somali officials have said that some anonymous Muslim nations had agreed to foot the bill for Saracen. Western officials said one was the United Arab Emirates, where Mr. Prince lives.
According to a letter dated May 15, 2010, Somalia’s previous prime minister, Omar A.A. Sharmarke, planned to authorize Saracen to begin training and equipping the Somali police. However, Mr. Sharmarke insists that he never wrote such a letter, and the final contract appears to have not been signed. The contract lists Lafras Luitingh, a former officer in South Africa’s Civil Cooperation Bureau, an apartheid-era internal security force notorious for killing government opponents, as Saracen’s chief operations officer.
The Saracen deal has been shrouded in mystery from the moment African Union officials began whispering about it in Nairobi last November. The company is headquartered in Saida, Lebanon, according to Somali government records, yet it appears to have been formed with the remnants of Executive Outcomes, a mercenary firm composed largely of former South African special forces. Saracen’s Uganda subsidiary was implicated in a 2002 United Nations Security Council report for training rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo who went on to massacre civilians and plunder gold. On Sunday, Saracen officials declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Mr. Prince. Last week, Mr. Prince’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, challenged the African Union report, saying Mr. Prince had “no financial role” in Saracen and that he was primarily involved in humanitarian efforts and 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 Puntland, a semi-autonomous, pirate-infested region of northern Somalia. According to United Nations officials, Saracen agents recently imported weapons into Puntland, a possible violation of the long-standing arms embargo on Somalia, and Saracen agents have begun training a heavily armed, anti-pirate militia.
Mr. Jama said he hoped Puntland would “follow the direction of the federal government and not continue with Saracen,” but recently Puntland officials 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 comment on Saracen saying, “I cannot give you any information regarding this case.”