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Colombian ex-soldiers in Iraq pay dispute Print

By Andy Webb-Vidal in Caracas - August 21 2006

Dozens of former Colombian soldiers deployed in Baghdad as security guards are engaged in a pay dispute with their employer Blackwater, a US private military company contracted in Iraq by the State Department.

The dispute erupted in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone after 35 Colombians learned that their salaries amounted to a quarter of the $4,000 (?3,120, £2,126) they allege they were offered by recruitment agents in Bogotá acting for Blackwater.

Mostly seasoned counter-insurgency troops, the Colombians allege that they were given their contracts barely hours before departing Bogotá or en route to Iraq and only then realised that they would be paid $34 per day. "We were tricked by the company into believing we would make much more money," one former Colombian army captain, who asked not to be identified and who returned from Iraq two weeks ago, told the Financial Times.

The 35 Colombians stationed in the Green Zone jointly signed and sent a letter to Blackwater on June 9, a copy of which was obtained by the FT, demanding they receive a salary of $2,700 a "in line with their compatriots" , or be repatriated. Because Americans and Britons usually earn salaries in the order of $10,000 in Iraq, the much lower pay offered to Colombians is likely to prompt accusations of exploitation and discrimination, one US security consultant said.

But Chris Taylor, a spokesman for Blackwater, said that the pay disagreement had arisen due to an overlapping change in contractual terms, and that the company, based in Moyock, North Carolina, had responded to the complaints. "There was a change in contract, one contract expired, another task order was bid upon, and so the numbers are different," he said. "Every single Colombian signed a contract for$34 a day before they went over to Iraq."

Mr Taylor added that Colombians who claimed they had been drawn to Iraq under "false pretences" had been offered repatriation, but only two took up the offer. In the past three years, hundreds of Colombians, Chileans and Ecuadoreans have gone to Baghdad, Kirkuk and Hilla to work for private military companies, or PMCs.

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