By Graeme Hosken, Elize Jacobs and Tracy Lee Goldstone
A Pretoria man, believed to be a former Security Branch member, was killed and four other South Africans injured, one of them critically, in a suicide bomb blast in Baghdad, Iraq.
The former policeman, Francois Strydom, was killed on when a 250kg bomb, placed inside a minibus painted with ambulance insignia, exploded outside the hotel in which they were staying.
The men, who are all believed to have been former members of the security police, were contracted by SAS International to protect oil installations in the conflict-ridden country.
SAS International is sub-contracted by the UK security company, Erinys International, which has branches in Iraq and Africa.
Erinys has a year-long contract worth $39,5-million to protect 140 Iraqi oil installations.
In Wednesday's explosion the suicide bomber detonated the explosives outside the Shaheen Hotel situated in the Baghdad suburb of Karrada. It is believed that Strydom and the four other South African men were providing security to Iraqi Labour Minister Sami Azara al-Majun, who operated from sections of the hotel.
Speaking to the Pretoria News, general manager of Erinys Africa Johan Viljoen on Wednesday night confirmed that Erinys Iraq had subcontracted SAS International, an American-based security company, to do certain security work in Iraq.
"What other work they were doing besides helping protect oil installations I cannot say," he said.
Viljoen confirmed that several South Africans were working for SAS International.
He said they were still trying to establish the exact circumstances surrounding the blast.
"All we know at the moment is that those South Africans injured were all in the employment of SAS International," said Viljoen.
A friend and former colleague of Strydom who lives in Pretoria expressed shock at the news. He declined to comment further.
The director of the Department of Foreign Affairs media liaison office, Nomfanelo Kota, confirmed that one South African was killed and that four were injured.
The names of the injured have not yet been released.
"What we can say is that the critically injured man was rushed to an American military hospital in the Green Zone in Baghdad where he underwent major surgery," Kota said.
She declined to say what injuries he had sustained, but confirmed that the other three had escaped with "minor lacerations and bruises".
Kota said Strydom's remains would be flown home soon by the company he was contracted to.
She declined to comment any further.
Sapa-AP reported late last night that up to four people, including Strydom and the bomber were killed, and 17 were injured. They were quoting Iraqi police and doctors. This could not be confirmed. The United States military initially reported three dead, then said only the driver was killed. A spokesperson refused to explain why the figure was lowered.
The attack reinforced fears voiced by United States officials that insurgents will step up attacks in the run-up to the planned transfer of power by the US-led coalition administration to a sovereign Iraqi government on July 1. It was the second suicide bombing in the capital in less than two weeks.
According to the Associated Press report, South African Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa said only one South African was killed and four injured in the blast which left a huge crater in the street, destroying the ground floor of the three-story hotel.
The blast hurled remains of one car across the street, and several other cars caught fire and were reduced to mounds of twisted metal.
At least five hotels used by foreigners in Baghdad have been attacked by insurgents in the past with car bombs, rockets and other explosive devices.
On January 18, at least 31 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a main gate to the headquarters of the US-led coalition. Most of the dead were Iraqis.