Blackwater founder to sell up as criticism takes its toll

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The Independent US

Blackwater, the private security company which gained notoriety for the activities of its staff while acting for the US government in Iraq, is being sold after a change of name failed to stop widespread criticism of its activities.

Erik Prince, the company's founder, blamed "politics" in Washington for the failure to "appreciate" the work being done by his firm, some of whose staff faced charges over the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians.

Mr Prince, who was close to the Bush administration, is said to be in talks with a number of possible buyers to take the company, now known as Xe, off his hands just a few months after he sold off an aviation arm for $200m (£139m).

Blackwater's employees were linked to 195 shooting incidents between 2005 and 2008 while conducting international operations. The most notorious incident, witnessed by The Independent, came at Nisoor Square in Baghdad three years ago when families were gunned down on a Sunday afternoon resulting in 17 deaths.

Widespread anger in Iraq and protests from the Iraqi government led to the US launching an investigation into the deaths and a number of Blackwater employees were indicted on federal charges. However, the case was dropped after a judge decided that the prosecutors had mishandled evidence.

More recently, five former executives, including Gary Jackson, a former president of the company, were indicted on charges of conspiring to violate federal firearms laws. This led to more Congressional scrutiny with the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin calling on the Pentagon to consider banning Xe from a $1bn deal to train the police force in Afghanistan.

Mr Prince, 40, who founded the company in 1997 with some former naval colleagues, said he would play no further part in the company once it is sold. "Xe's new management team has made significant changes and improvements to the company over the last 15 months," he said. "Performance doesn't matter in Washington, just politics." He had previously said: "The experience we've had would certainly be a disincentive to any other companies that want to step in and put their entire business at risk."

Mr Prince, a regular contributor to the Republican Party, became the largest of the State Department's three private security contractors, providing 987 guards for embassies and bases abroad.

More than 90 per cent of the company's revenues came from government contracts and the staff were among the highest paid in the corporate protection field. Blackwater guards also took part in clandestine operations run by the CIA, often taking part in raids to arrest suspected insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and transporting detainees.