Controversial SA-linked private military operator Sterling Corporate Services, aka Saracen International, has lost its anti-piracy contract in the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland.
The termination comes in the midst of strenuous criticism by the UN’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) of SCS’s handling of its United Arab Emirates-funded contract to train a paramilitary Puntland Maritime Police Force of about 1 000 to tackle piracy on the Horn of Africa.
While no final announcement has yet been made, Weekend Argus is reliably informed that US-based private military company Bancroft Global Development will inherit control of the maritime police force. There have been discussions with the UAE sponsors of the project – who will continue to fund it – to iron out the details.
Bancroft is under contract to the UN’s Amisom mission in Somalia, and has been training and advising UN forces in the region. Several South Africans are employed by Bancroft in its Somali operations.
Confirming the cancellation of the SCS contract, lawyer Wilna Lubbe, acting for Sterling and Saracen kingpin Lafras Luitingh, said the “contract was terminated by agreement as the Government of Puntland now has the capacity to proceed with its antipiracy programme”.
Lubbe also confirmed that “Bancroft as subcontractor to the Amisom, will assist where necessary”.
But it appears the decision was taken after what the authoritative Somalia Report’s Robert Young Pelton described as a “behind closed door deal” brokered between the UAE and the UN “to avoid… sanctions”.
This, Weekend Argus has learnt, led to a meeting with Sterling senior executives in the UAE in early June where the plug was pulled on the project. Sterling was also told that all foreign operatives would have to leave Somalia by the end of that month.
Then, in July, the SEMG published a 350-page report on the security situation in Somalia, sharply critical of the actions of Sterling and the maritime police under its control.
Describing the force as functioning as the private army of self-styled Puntland president Abdirahman Mohamud Faroole, the SEMG painted Sterling as a problem to security in the region.
It accused Sterling and a network of covertly associated offshore companies of systematic and large-scale violations of UN arms embargoes designed to reduce tensions and volatility in the east African zone.
The report highlighted several incidents where Sterling operators – whose nominal brief was confined to training and advising the maritime police force – were involved in military actions against Faroole’s enemies.
Also noted were documented tortures and other incidents of human rights abuse allegedly perpetrated under the command of the mainly South African Sterling corps.
On this basis, the monitoring group called for strong action by the UN Security Council.
Notably, it wanted Sterling/Saracen “designated” along with other companies and individuals in the opaque network connected to the Puntland operation, and subjected to “targeted measures”.
Such measures could include the freezing of assets, travel and trading bans, as well as the exertion of pressure on member governments to frame prosecutions under antimercenary laws such as SA’s Foreign Military Assistance legislation.
While the report stopped short of naming individuals, Weekend Argus has been informed by intelligence sources the moves were aimed not only against top management – notably Luitingh, a one-time partner in the now disbanded Executive Outcomes – but also against US national Erik Dean Prince, the former boss of the notorious US private military contractor Blackwater who is now resident in the UAE. Prince has been tracked as a major player in the Puntland military adventure.
A subsequent meeting of the UN Security Council on July 25, however – while noting the submission of the SEMG report – did not immediately make any formal resolution around the SEMG’s recommendations. Neither have any individuals or organisations thus far been designated for further action.
Though controversial throughout its contract in Puntland, the Sterling-controlled maritime police force achieved some notable successes in recent times in the fight against piracy in Somalia, notably hunting down the Isse Yulux pirate group in an on-land operation earlier this year, and an estimated reduction of successful pirate attacks by as much as 50 percent this year.