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A confidential report on the death of a military contractor last month brings into stark focus the problems facing an SA-linked security outfit engaged in a controversial anti-piracy mission in the failed state of Somalia.
Former Parachute Battalion sergeant major Lodewyk (Loots) Pietersen was killed on April 27, in the midst of an operation in the semi-autonomous zone of Puntland, on the Horn of Africa. His death followed an argument with a trainee member of the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), though the details were not given. Reports in the Somali media muttered darkly about a mutiny, and SA’s department of International Relations and Co-operation disclaimed all knowledge.
Pietersen, 52, was employed by a controversial SA-linked private security operation with roots in the now defunct Executive Outcomes. Formerly styled as Saracen International, the project is funded by unnamed donors in Abu Dhabi, and fronted by the nominee company Sterling Corporate Services
What emerges from a private intelligence report in the possession of Weekend Argus is that, before he was killed, Pietersen had had words with a group of PMPF paramilitaries after they purloined two armoured vehicles from the Saracen operational base to buy the drug khat in a local village.
Khat – though its use is time-honoured and ubiquitous in the Horn of Africa – is forbidden under Saracen/Sterling’s operational regulations, as well as being proscribed by international anti-drug protocols.
When Pietersen sought to upbraid the culprits, he was reportedly met with a hail of gunfire from a heavy machine gun – a Russian-made Dishika – turret-mounted on the armoured vehicles. The Dishika however jammed, as the matter was reported on the PMPF radio network.
But even in the face of such belligerence, Pietersen refused to back off. Accompanied by two PMPF personnel, he approached the vehicles to assert his authority. This led to further shooting, this time volleys of warning shots fired into the air from the troops’ assault rifles – then finally shots directed at the SA contractor, leading to his death.
It was reported that 10 members of the PMPF were arrested and taken back to base in Bosasso. It remains unclear whether the culprits have been charged, and whether further action has been taken.
What does emerge, however, is that the killing of Pietersen came at the head of growing tensions between the mainly SA military contractors and the troops they have trained on behalf of the Puntland administration.
In part, the tensions have, according to sources on the ground, arisen from the realisation that many of the around 1 000 PMPF trainees – for reasons rooted in the clan-based structure of Somali society – nurture stronger loyalties to the Puntland pirates than to their employers.
One incident recounted in an intelligence report has a detachment of PMPF troops – rather than striking at a pirate base in a surprise attack – firing off warning shots, apparently to alert the fugitives of their approach.
Against this backdrop of rising tension and suspicion, relations between trainers and the trained have been growing increasingly ominous. In one earlier incident reported at Saracen’s operational base west of Bosasso, an unnamed military trainer allegedly kicked a trainee in the back while the latter was at his prayers.
This same contractor – not Pietersen, who, by intelligence accounts, was respected by troops – made things worse another time, slapping a female trainee in the face. The assault resulted in 27 shots being fired at the contractor, all of them missing – and ultimately in the trainer being sent back home.
At the same time, questions have been asked about the real agendas pursued by the PMPF and their “trainers”. As noted in one intelligence report in the possession of Weekend Argus, “the PMPF deployment into this area was to provide protection to unknown individuals who were exploring and collecting minerals from the area. It was alleged that three days ago (April 25), an unknown amount (sic) of containers that was moved from this area, were loaded on a ship in the Bosasso port”.
The engagement of Saracen in the Somali context is ostensibly geared towards fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden. However critics say the war on piracy is – at least to a significant extent – being used as a cover up.
In the first place, attention has been drawn to the involvement of former CIA officers, as well as Erik Prince, founder of the notorious Blackwater private military contractor, in setting up and securing funding for the project. In this analysis – and it is in large measure shared by UN monitors as well as the local media – the primary target is not piracy, but the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab.
At the same time, however, the activities of Saracen in Puntland have been linked to the exploitation of mineral resources – which is powerfully resisted by traditionalist Bedouin tribes in the region.
Executive Outcomes, the parent company of Saracen International – Saracen’s front man Lafras Luitingh was a director of the now deregistered EO – pioneered an arrangement whereby security contractors would be paid in mining rights and other natural resources in exchange for functioning as private armies on behalf of the contractor.
As reported earlier by Independent Newspapers, the Puntland contract held by Saracen since late 2010 was formally transferred to a Dubai-registered entity, called Sterling Corporate Services International, in the early part of this year.
This followed severe criticism by the UN’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group who, in a July 2011 report, described Saracen as the “most egregious threat” to peace and stability in the region. Saracen International was identified as having systematically flouted the UN’s general arms embargo to import several tons of prohibited material. Weekend Argus is reliably informed that further violations of the arms embargo will be detailed in a forthcoming SEMG report, scheduled for release in the middle of this year.
The transfer of the contract from Saracen to Sterling has been described as “nothing more than a name change”, an effort to conceal the flow of money and control in a misleading paper trail. On the ground it has been business unchanged and business as usual.
The operation remains unaccredited with the UN, and neither individual contractors nor the SA arm of Saracen are authorised by SA oversight body, the National Conventional Arms Control Committee.
In the wake of the Pietersen killing, Weekend Argus has learnt that the Abu Dhabi backers of the PMPF have expressed objections, and are looking to transfer control of the anti-piracy project to other contractors.
Approached for comment, Luitingh said he was not prepared to discuss the project with the media. – Additional reporting by Henriëtte Geldenhuys