Somalia's Puntland suspends security contractors

Somalia's northern region of Puntland has suspended a controversial deal with a private security firm contracted to train an anti-piracy force, two government officials said Thursday.

Saracen International was hired to train 1,050 men in Puntland to battle the pirates that menace shipping off Somalia's coast.

An Associated Press investigation previously found that the project was linked to Erik Prince, who founded the private security firm Blackwater, and also had a secret mission to go after an Islamist rebel linked to insurgents in southern Somalia.

Lafras Luitingh, the chief operating officer of Beirut-registered Saracen International, said in a statement that the program had been suspended since Feb. 12.

"This decision was reached after close consultation with the UN, and with the full support and concurrence of the government of Puntland, to allow international donor states to comply with all of the UN notification requirements for this activity."

He added that UN staff were welcome to visit Saracen facilities at any time.

Two officials in the Puntland government said the deal had been suspended following international pressure. Both asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

One official said most of Saracen's primarily South African staff have left the country but he expected them to return. The second official said that training has been suspended and that 200 recruits who had graduated from the training program were not paid in February.

Puntland's information minister did not return calls seeking comment on the subject.

A person familiar with the project, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed that the project had been suspended partly due to pressure from the U.N. and the U.S. government.

The two organizations were concerned about the secrecy surrounding the deal, its possible violation of U.N. sanctions and that it might undercut hard-won reforms in the Somali security sector. A mystery donor, believed to be the United Arab Emirates, had already spent millions of dollars on the Saracen deal through a web of companies with false addresses.

Another Saracen deal to train Somali forces in the capital of Mogadishu was canceled by Somalia's parliament in January.

Somalia has not had a functioning government for over 20 years. The failed state is a haven for pirates and Islamist insurgents who are battling the weak U.N.-backed government.


Associated Press writers Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya and Adam Goldman in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.