The founder of the controversial security company Blackwater – whose employees faced criminal charges over the killing of civilians in Iraq – is setting up a paramilitary force of foreign mercenaries in Abu Dhabi, it has been claimed.
Fighters from Colombia and South Africa have been flown into the Emirate, where the Sunni rulers are deeply apprehensive about the popular unrest of the "Arab Spring" as well as the perceived threat from Shia Iran.
Erik Prince, who sold his stake in Blackwater, had arranged a $529m deal to form an 800-strong battalion with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Sandhurst-trained Abu Dhabi Crown Prince who is the effective ruler of the United Arab Emirates, according to reports.
Some of the South African recruits are said to be veterans of Executive Outcomes, which was set up in the early Nineties, by, among others, Simon Mann, a former British SAS officer who was later jailed in Equatorial Guinea for his part in the so-called "wonga coup" – the attempt to unseat the country's despotic leader.
Documents detailing the Abu Dhabi agreement, which have been obtained by the New York Times, appear to show details of how the imported guards would defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks, and put down internal revolts.
American federal laws prohibit US citizens from training foreign troops if they did not secure a licence from the State Department.
Mark C Toner, a spokesman for the department, would not confirm whether Mr Prince's company had obtained such a licence, but said the department was investigating whether the training effort violated American laws.
Mr Toner pointed out that Blackwater (which renamed itself Xe Services) paid $42m in fines last year for training foreign troops in Jordan and other countries over the years.
The UAE's ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, declined to comment for this article. A spokesman for Mr Prince also refused to comment.
The contract documents show the Abu Dhabi government had agreed to provide weapons and equipment for the mercenary force, supplying everything from M-16 rifles to mortars, Leatherman knives and Land Rovers. They agreed to buy parachutes, motorcycles, rucksacks – and 24,000 pairs of socks.
Mr Prince's name is not on contracts for the forming of the battalion. According to the New York Times, company insiders have at times tried to hide his identity by referring to him by the code name "Kingfish". Three former employees, and two people involved in security contracting, described Mr Prince's central role in the newspaper report.
Former members of the SAS and the French Foreign Legion are among those being used to run courses at a base for the mercenaries at Zayed Military City. Some of these trainers had been attracted from posts in Afghanistan and Iraq by salaries of more than $200,000 a year.
Shortcomings in the abilities of the Colombians resulted in the role of the trainers changing to actively taking part in future operations alongside their charges. The South Africans, including those who had served in Executive Outcomes, were brought in to bolster the fighting quality of the mercenary force.
A former member of the Colombian national police force, 42-year-old Calixto Rincó* was among the first batch of recruits to arrive at the camp.
He is now back in Bogota after a hernia operation and claimed his visa carried a special stamp from the UAE military intelligence branch, which is overseeing the entire project, which allowed him to move through customs and immigration without being questioned.
"We were practically an army for the Emirates," said Mr Rincón. "They wanted people who had a lot of experience in countries with conflicts, like Colombia."
But they faced severe restrictions. "We didn't have permission to even look through the door. We were only allowed outside for our morning jog, and all we could see was sand everywhere."
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