Anglo-American security firm investigated over 'kidnap plot'

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An Anglo-American security company is being investigated by British customs and the FBI for an alleged plot to kidnap the Liberian President, Charles Taylor, for trial at a UN war crimes court in Sierra Leone.

Northbridge Services Group is said to have established links with the rebel Lurd (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) group with an offer to deploy up to 2,000 troops in the West African state before the arrival of a UN force.

Customs officers in Britain are investigating whether the company has broken a UN arms embargo on Liberia. They have also uncovered attempts by the British Government to use a British security company, Sandline International, in West Africa.

Security sources say the American and British governments are, this time, increasingly alarmed at the prospect of mercenaries getting involved in the volatile area while delicate negotiations continue in Monrovia for Mr Taylor to step down.

Andrew Williams, Northbridge's British head, a former paratrooper who fought in the Falklands, said he had been questioned at the American embassy in London as part of the FBI investigation.

A spokesman for the company acknowledged in London that it had been in touch with "relevant parties" over Mr Taylor, but insisted the plan was to take him to Nigeria, which has offered him sanctuary, and not Sierra Leone. "We are able to conduct such an operation. We would go to Charles Taylor, who would step down from power, and go to exile in Nigeria," he said.

Northbridge has already been in conflict with the British Government after reports it was planning to send hundreds of troops to fight for the government in Ivory Coast. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said such a move would "seriously undermine the peace process and the efforts of the UK and the wider international community".

Northbridge, which claims to have 3,000 former British soldiers as well as 2,000 from the US, South Africa and France on its books, had apparently contacted the special court in Sierra Leone about funding the seizure of Mr Taylor. Reports say the court did not discount the offer, but refused to bankroll it, saying it did not have the money for such an operation. It allegedly suggested the company get funding from Washington.

Bodioh Siapoe, a Lurd spokesman in Washington, told the Financial Times: "Lurd would wholeheartedly welcome Northbridge to come in and help stabilise the situation, not only in Liberia but also the entire region."

Another Lurd representative in America, the former Liberian presidential candidate T Q Harris, said the basis for the talks was "desperation", caused by the seeming unwillingness of the international community to get involved. "We started looking at options and thought about the need for a private army."

Mr Williams had vehemently denied Northbridge was doing anything untoward in several international ventures. Mr Williams said: "We are not mercenaries. Northbridge is a legitimate private military company that only works for democratically elected national governments or recognised agencies."