The PNG government has contracted Sandline International, a Bahamian- registered company with representative offices in London and Washington DC to assist it in its operations against rebels in the island of Bougainville who have been fighting the authorities.
Sandline denies it is a band of mercenaries. "We are an international military consultancy company specialising in the provision of advice and problem resolution for legitimate governments and international organisations," its chief executive officer, Tim Spicer, told The Independent yesterday.
Col Spicer is a former lieutenant-colonel in the Scots Guards with 20 years' experience in the Falklands, Bosnia, Cyprus, the Gulf War and Northern Ireland, where he was appointed OBE. A brisk, crisp man, he was General Sir Michael Rose's military attache in Bosnia, and knows how to handle the media. Sandline works out of smart premises in King's Road, Chelsea, west London, with the latest technology and expensive modern art on the wall. It is more like the office of an management consultancy than a barracks.
Early last year, representatives of Sandline were approached by the PNG government to assist in advising and training their armed forces. The contract was signed in January this year, and is reportedly worth $36m (pounds 22.5m). The PNG National Defence Force, despite the assistance provided by Australian forces, has been unable to deal effectively with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) rebels. It has frequently been accused of human rights abuses and summary executions.
Sandline admits to being involved in PNG but would not discuss details of the operation stating that "our projects are generally sensitive in nature and we apply strict rules of confidentiality to our work and client relationships". However, Australian newspapers have reported that PNG planned to bring in up to 150 foreign-hired soldiers for an operation to capture or kill the leaders of the pro-independence Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
Sir Julius Chan said yesterday: "The team we have hired to train our security force members are not cowboys, they are a reputable professional company who are part of our many-faceted strategy to reach a lasting solution to this particular crisis, as well as other matters of national security."
Sandline considers itself and one or two other companies to be at the leading edge of a global trend in private security companies assisting nation states with their internal security problems. It calls upon the resources of a number of different specialist sub-contractors in Britain, the US and South Africa, and these include ex-members of the UK, US and South African special forces.
The precedents for the use of private security companies to tackle civil wars were set by the South Africa-based Executive Outcomes (EO) in Angola and Sierra Leone. Sandline emphatically denies that it is a subsidiary of EO, though it has "sub-contracted" some work in PNG to them, says Col Spicer. "We have a high regard for the professionalism of Executive Outcomes, but we are not the same company," he adds.
However, Sandline shares offices with companies whose directors include Tony Buckingham, the businessman who introduced EO into Angola, their first big contract.
Col Spicer says Sandline was established in the early 1990s in order "to fill a vacuum in the post-Cold War era, to offer governments specialist military expertise at a time when Western nations' desire to provide active support to resolve overseas conflicts has materially decreased, as has their capability to do so". It is an independent entity privately owned by senior ex-military personnel from the UK and US armed forces.
Like its competitors, the US-based Military Personnel and Resources Incorporated and EO, it shies away from the label of mercenary. It claims that it will only accept projects that "receive the endorsement of the international community".
To this end, it declares that it has four operating principles. It will only undertake projects acceptable to key Western governments, such as the US and the UK. It will only undertake operations that are legal and moral. It works on behalf of internationally recognised government regimes. And operations must be conducted within the boundaries of client governments.
The employment of Sandline International has embarrassed the Australian government, which enjoys good relations with PNG and trains its Defence Force. During question time yesterday in the Australian Parliament, the Prime Minister stated: "We have no sympathy for the BRA which has carried out a great deal of violence and has constantly obstructed talks. But we are convinced that military action is not the answer, that only a negotiated settlement can offer a long-term solution."
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