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Somalia mulls privately trained anti-piracy force

Somalia is considering allowing a private security company to train a 1,000-man anti-piracy force in the capital of Mogadishu, a Somali official said Friday. It would be the second such unit funded by an unidentified country — a project that has raised eyebrows in Washington and at the U.N.

The security company, Saracen International, is already training a different 1,000-man force in Somalia's northern region of Puntland. The project is being funded by an unknown Muslim country that those involved — including a former U.S. ambassador and a former CIA officer — will not name.

Somali Ambassador Mohamed Ali Nur told The Associated Press the Mogadishu force would hit the pirates on land, where their havens are out of reach of a multinational naval armada that has tried to protect international shipping.

The Somali government will decide in the next three weeks whether to have Saracen train the anti-piracy force in Mogadishu, Nur said. Another program to train up to 300 men for the presidential guard is also being considered.

If approved, that could mean up to 2,400 men would be trained by Saracen International. The mystery donor also has promised to pay the men and equip them with everything except arms. The total cost of the project is unclear.

A European Union-led program to reform the Somali army is training and paying for 2,000 men at a cost of around $13.2 million, indicating that at such a level of expenditure, the anonymous donor nation has deep pockets.

The donor insists on keeping its identity secret, citing concerns over terrorism, according to a presentation about the company given to Nairobi-based diplomats on Friday and provided to the AP.

Somali pirates have never been known to retaliate against nations that have sent warships to patrol the Somali coast, but the al-Qaida-linked Somali insurgency launched suicide bombings in Uganda that killed 76 people in July. Uganda is a main contributor to an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.

The mystery donor is paying for the services of a former American ambassador for war crimes, Pierre Prosper, and a former CIA deputy chief of station, Michael Shanklin. Prosper is being retained as a legal adviser to the Somali government on issues of transparency and anti-corruption, and Shanklin is a security adviser.

Prosper and two other Americans — former army officer Michael Newton and lawyer Robert O'Brien — gave a presentation Friday to the international community about the proposed projects.

But diplomats said the presentation raised more questions than it answered. They said they didn't know how the force would be deployed, how it would be integrated with current efforts to reform the security forces or how it would work with international anti-piracy navies. The chain of command and the role of proposed embedded foreign mentors was also unclear. The diplomats did not want to be identified because they are not authorized to appear in the press.

Nur said the donor country would be willing to pay the salaries of the recruits but he did not know for how long. Regular payments are vital to ensure recruits do not desert to the insurgency, a problem that has dogged previous programs.

Theoretically, Somalia already has a navy. The government inaugurated a force of 500 men last year under the leadership of Admiral Farah Ahmed, who said they were armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, and hoped to get tanks and warships.

But when asked what had happened to that force and their weapons, Nur said that there was no anti-piracy force in Mogadishu "that I'm aware of." Other Somali officials were not available for comment and it was unclear what happened to Ahmed's force.

Nur said the new Saracen-trained anti-piracy forces would go after pirates "on land." Mogadishu is not known for being near pirate havens but Nur said there were pirates to the north and to the south. Puntland officials have said the same thing, and said that six aircraft also would be provided by the donor. The anti-piracy forces would fall under the Ministry of Defense, Nur said.

It's unclear how any of the Saracen-trained forces will be supplied with arms and ammunition. Nur said the projects would be careful to obey a U.N. arms embargo on Somalia and not import weapons, but the arms embargo also forbids the provision on military services to any faction unless it has been cleared with the U.N. sanctions committee. The committee has not received any notifications so far.

In a seemingly related development, a plane that landed in the northern Somali town of Hargeisa on Friday was impounded. The minister of information in the breakaway region of Somaliland, Abdillahi Jama Osman, said the plane was carrying mine-detecting equipment and military uniforms. Six Russians and two South Africans were on board, he said.

The flight originated in South Africa, stopped in Uganda — where Saracen International is based — and was due to go to Bosasso, the capital of Puntland. The plane had to land in Hargeisa because of mechanical problems, Ahmed said.