Nairobi: Erik Prince, whose former company Blackwater Worldwide became synonymous with the use of private US security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, has quietly taken on a new role in helping to train troops in lawless Somalia.
Prince is involved in a multimillion-dollar program financed by several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, to mobilise some 2,000 Somali recruits to fight pirates who are terrorising the African coast, according to a person familiar with the project and an intelligence report seen by a news agency.
Prince`s 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 run 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 threw out the charges 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.
Though Somali pirates have seized ships flying under various flags, 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 UN-backed administration is confined to a few neighbourhoods 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.
In response to requests for an interview with Prince, his spokesman e-mailed a brief statement that the Blackwater founder is interested in "helping Somalia overcome the scourge of piracy" and has advised antipiracy efforts. Spokesman Mark Corallo said Prince has "no financial role" in the project and declined to answer any questions about Prince`s 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 2,000 Somali soldiers with US’ support, and an African Union force of 8,000 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers is propping up the government.
By introducing contractors, "You could see the privatisation of war, with very little accountability to the international community," said EJ Hogendoorn, a Nairobi-based analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank. "Who are these private companies accountable to and what prevents them from changing clients when it`s convenient for them?"