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Somali region defies fed gov't over Saracen deal

A semiautonomous regional government in Somalia on Friday defied the central government's decision to end relations with a private security company linked to the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, underscoring the weakness of the authorities in Mogadishu.

Somalia's Minister of Information Abdulkareem Jama insisted on Friday that the decision to end the relationship with Saracen International applies to regional governments.

"The decision is binding on all Somali territories. That will apply to all parts of Somalia," said Jama.

But Abdirizak Ahmed, the head of the counter-piracy program in the semiautonomous northern region of Puntland, said it does not necessarily recognize the authority of the federal government to make that decision. Saracen International has already begun training forces in Puntland, whose administration has been distancing itself from the Mogadishu-based government, saying it hasn't delivered security and services.

"I don't think the decision they have made will change anything in Puntland," Ahmed said. "I don't think it will have an impact on the relationship Puntland has with Saracen ... it's not a (national government) issue."

Other Puntland officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Last week The Associated Press reported on links between Saracen International and Erik Prince, who founded Blackwater Worldwide. Killings by Blackwater guards in Afghanistan and Iraq — including a 2007 incident in Baghdad in which 14 Iraqi civilians were shot dead — raised global concerns over the lack of accountability of private security contractors in war zones.

Lafras Luitingh, the chief operating officer of Saracen International, sent a statement which seemed to recognize that the Saracen deals, at least with Somalia's federal government, are over.

"We are proud of the work we performed for the Somali government who invited us to provide important counter-piracy and humanitarian assistance. We are ready to serve again if called upon to do so," it said. Luitingh did not return calls Friday seeking comment.

Saracen has already begun training a force of over 1,000 men in Puntland that is supposed to go after pirate gangs on land. It may also be deployed against Islamist insurgents in the region.

Saracen also signed a deal with a previous Somali government to train a presidential guard and possibly a second antipiracy force of over 1,000 men in the Somali capital, but the new administration voted on Thursday to abandon the deal.

The AP reported last week that several companies linked to Saracen International had given authorities false addresses or registration information. Saracen has declined to identify those funding their multimillion dollar project but Luitingh said last week that the donors are in the process of notifying the U.N. A person familiar with the project and an intelligence report said Prince was involved in the multimillion-dollar program financed by several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

Saracen has declined to elaborate on its relationship with Prince. A statement by Prince's spokesman said simply that he has provided advice to several antipiracy operations.

If the Puntland government defies the national government's decision to ax the Saracen deals, it could lead to a serious breach between the two regions. Puntland is generally considered more stable, and the U.S. has indicated it would be willing to funnel more aid to the region. But most international donors still focus heavily on the Mogadishu-based government, which controls only a few neighborhoods in the capital and is under assault by an Islamist militia linked to al-Qaida.

The U.S. had previously raised concerns over the lack of transparency in the Saracen deals, saying it was unclear who was funding them, who was responsible and what the new forces would be used for.

Jama said the Somali government does not even have a copy of a signed contract with Saracen. Luitingh has said the contract was signed on March 1 by the then-deputy prime minister and minister of finance and witnessed by the Somali ambassador to Kenya.