South African mercenaries said to have been involved in an operation to save Muammar Gaddafi and his family from revolutionary forces at the end of the civil war in Libya may have been sent by a multinational oil company.
A woman of British and Kenyan extraction involved in the security field has disclosed that she was asked to recruit a private force for work in Libya by an oil company as the conflict reached its violent climax, The Independent has learnt.
Some South African "soldiers of fortune" were said to have been with Colonel Gaddafi when he was captured, tortured and killed by rebel forces as he tried to flee the besieged city of Sirte. Others from the contingent are believed to be guarding the dictator's son, Saif al-Islam, currently on the run in the border region of Chad, Niger and Algeria.
The name of Sarah Penfold, who is based in Nairobi, and describes herself as an "executive protection and security specialist", has repeatedly come up in accounts of the private forces working in Libya. She has denied that she had any part in dealing with the Gaddafi family.
She told an acquaintance in South Africa: "I was asked by a friend to get some guys together to do PSD [private security detail] and training in Libya for a well known oil company to protect their assets and personnel. I sent an email round asking guys to go for an interview and forward it to others. That's all."
However, according to sources, a group of these security contractors had, unknown to Ms Penfold, taken part in the Gaddafi mission. Some are reported to have been injured and at least two killed when the dictator's convoy was ambushed by Nato air strikes and rebel attacks on the ground.
Ms Penfold suggested that another security group, running a parallel operation in Libya, may have been the ones who suffered the casualties. She continued: "Then I find out from some intel friends that your lovely head of police with his ANC links got a load of police guys together... These, I presume, were the guys who got hit."
There is no evidence to suggest that the current head of the police force in South Africa is linked in any way to private security operations in Libya. However, the name of a former senior police officer has surfaced in connection with the mission. He has denied any involvement.
Although Ms Penfold is insistent that she has done nothing wrong over recruitment for Libya, her entry in a social networking site has now been removed. Her profile read: "Trained in advanced and tactical high-speed driving. Medically trained to first aid level 2 and 3, with a focus on trauma injuries."
Some of the South Africans involved in Libya are believed to be veterans of a failed attempt to overthrow the dictator of Equatorial Guinea in the "Wonga Coup", led by former SAS officer Simon Mann 11 years ago.
Cruise Steyl, a former business partner of Sir Mark Thatcher and, with him, involved in the coup plot, was contacted two days after Gaddafi's death and asked whether he would be prepared to help evacuate a group of stranded South African mercenaries from Libya.
Mr Steyl, an experienced pilot, said: "The call came on Saturday evening and I was told just how urgent the whole situation was and a fair amount of money was on offer. But what happened in Equatorial Guinea was a while ago, I have my own business now and I don't want that to get involved in that kind of activity."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies