MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somalia's government decided on Thursday to cancel an agreement with a private security company linked to the founder of Blackwater Worldwide to train Somali forces to go after pirates and insurgents, a senior official said.
Deputy Security Minister Ibrahim Mohamed Yarow told The Associated Press that the Cabinet, meeting behind closed doors, ended the agreement with Saracen International in a decision he said is "irrevocable."
The AP reported last week that Erik Prince, whose former company Blackwater Worldwide became synonymous with the use of private U.S. security forces running amok in Iraq and Afghanistan, had quietly taken on a new role in the project to train troops in lawless Somalia. Blackwater guards were charged with killing 14 civilians in 2007 in the Iraqi capital.
Yarow said his government, which controls only part of Mogadishu in a country that has seen mostly anarchy for two decades, wanted assistance, but only from companies with distinguished records.
"The Cabinet has today overwhelmingly voted against Saracen International," Yarrow said.
Lafras Luitingh, the chief operating officer of Beirut-registered Saracen International, did not immediately return phone calls or text messages from AP seeking comment.
Yarow said the contract had also envisioned reviving social services in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital which has been heavily damaged by ongoing fighting, including building health facilities.
On Jan. 21, a day after the AP report appeared, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington that the United States was "concerned about the lack of transparency regarding Saracen's funding, its objectives and its scope."
Crowley said the U.S. had made these concerns known to Somali officials.
Luitingh had told AP that his company signed a contract with the Somali government in March. He declined to say then whether Prince was involved in the project and said he was not part of Saracen. But a person familiar with the project and an intelligence report seen by AP said Prince was involved in the multimillion-dollar program financed by several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates.
It aimed to mobilize some 2,000 Somali recruits to fight Somali pirates who are terrorizing mariners sailing far off the African coast. The force was also to go after a warlord linked to Islamist insurgents, one official said.
Blackwater gained a notorious reputation in Washington after a series of incidents.
A U.S. federal judge threw out the charges related to the 2007 Baghdad shootings on the grounds that 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 one week to get out of the country or face arrest for visa violations.
The European Union is training about 2,000 Somali soldiers with U.S. support, and an African Union force of 8,000 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers is propping up the government.
Prince, now based in the United Arab Emirates, is no longer with Blackwater, now known as Xe Services. He has stoutly defended the company, telling Vanity Fair magazine that "when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus."
Since the signing of the Saracen contracts, a new Somali government took office and appointed a panel to investigate the deal and others, Minister of Information Abdulkareem Jama said earlier this month.
The U.N. is quietly investigating whether the Somalia projects have broken the blanket embargo on arms supplies to Somali factions.
Somali region defies fed gov't over Saracen deal