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Africa falls prey to the "dogs of war" as Pretoria drives out mercenaries Print

africaBy Colin Freeman and Stephen Bevan - The Sunday Telegraph - 05/11/2006

South Africa's government stands accused of fostering a new pack of "dogs of war" by drawing up draconian new anti-mercenary legislation which, critics warn, could drive thousands of security operatives underground.

The Prohibition of Mercenary Activity Bill, which is close to gaining final approval by South Africa's legislature, will give the government sweeping powers over private security companies, including tough restrictions on South Africans working as hired guns abroad.

Backed by proposed penalties of up to five years in jail, the new law aims to end nearly half a century of South African involvement in mercenary activity, which began with ventures in the Congo in the 1960s and more recently resulted in the arrest of Sir Mark Thatcher and nearly 70 South Africans for allegedly plotting against Equatorial Guinea's government in the so-called "Wonga coup" of 2004.

But critics say its main impact will be on the thousands of former South African military personnel now operating in Iraq, where they have found lucrative — and largely legitimate — jobs, employed by British- and American-based companies guarding military bases and business people.

Many now face the sack as a result of the new law, and have begun drifting back to South Africa and into more dubious work, advising militias in the continent's war zones.

"By criminalising any activity you will invariably drive it underground," said Andy Bearpark, the director-general of the British Association of Private Security Companies. "If these people find it difficult to sell their services legally, some may inevitably consider activities that none of us approve of."

Although the South African government has no jurisdiction over the people foreign security companies hire in countries such as Iraq, most big firms are unwilling to risk either their professional reputation or possible legal tussles by employing South Africans against Pretoria's wishes.

Many firms have told staff that they cannot renew their contracts, with up to 2,000 now facing an uncertain future.

According to South Africans acquainted with the mercenary world, some operatives have already swapped their jobs in Iraq for more shadowy roles in Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the Congo they are said to be secretly advising militias loyal to the vice-president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose forces have clashed with those of his political rival, President Joseph Kabila, in the presidential election race that ends later this month.

Nigel Morgan, a Cape Town-based security consultant who was briefly connected to the "Wonga coup" plotters, told The Sunday Telegraph: "These guys have been honing their skills in Iraq but now have no means of earning a legitimate living. We're hearing about them training up Bemba's militias, although because they're now out of official orbit nobody really knows what they're doing."

South Africa's private military sector has made efforts at reform in recent years, forming mainstream companies whose publicly stated aim is "security" rather than "mercenary" activity.

However, no amount of rebranding will make the country's black rulers forget that many operatives — nicknamed "moustaches" because of their penchant for Prussian-style facial hair — have backgrounds in the more notorious apartheid-era security units.

Because these spearheaded vicious campaigns against the African National Congress, from which the country's current rulers are drawn, there is thought to be an element of political score-settling- in the government's desire for tough new regulations.

Roy Jankielsohn MP, the defence spokesman for the opposition Democratic Alliance, described the legislation as a "malicious and punitive" measure which would affect mostly white South Africans, ousted from their own armed forces because of affirmative action.

The government recently promised that South Africans will be able to work in security abroad, provided they get approval from an arms control committee and restrict themselves to a list of approved countries. But critics say this is likely to lead to long bureaucratic delays and allow -officials too much control over where they operate, rendering them in effect unemployable abroad.

Up to 650 South Africans serving with the British Army also face having to resign their commissions under the law, although the Foreign Office now believes it can get a legal exemption.

Vuyo Zambodla, a South African defence ministry spokesman, said:"South Africa today is involved in peace operations all over the continent, yet whenever there is mercenary activity it is tracked back to this country. We cannot have that inconsistency. If there are problems with the law, we will deal with them accordingly." 

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