By Samer Al-Atrush & David Wainer
A team of Western mercenaries linked with two Dubai-based companies was briefly deployed to Libya to assist Russian-backed strongman Khalifa Haftar in his offensive to capture Tripoli, according to a confidential UN report, underscoring how the country’s proxy war has become a magnet for hired guns.
The report said the mercenaries were affiliated with Lancaster 6 DMCC and Opus Capital Asset Limited FZE, both registered at free zones in the United Arab Emirates, and traveled to Libya in June 2019 for a “well funded private military company operation” to support Haftar, who is fighting to dislodge the United Nations-recognized government.
Opus and Lancaster 6 financed and directed an operation to provide Haftar’s forces with helicopters, drones and cyber capabilities through a complex web of shell companies, according to two diplomats who briefed Bloomberg on the contents of the UN Panel of Experts report shared with the Security Council’s sanctions committee in February.
The diplomats also shared excerpts of the report with Bloomberg. UN officials declined to comment as the report is not public.
The team of about 20, led by South African national Steve Lodge, arrived in Libya in late June 2019 and abruptly pulled out a few days later, leaving the North African country aboard two boats to Malta.
UN investigators said in the report they were unable to determine why the team pulled out, but that the explanation provided by their lawyers – that they were providing services related to oil and gas — was not convincing.
Lodge declined to comment for this story. His lawyer said the accusations made in the UN report were false.
The report didn’t indicate which government or agency had commissioned the project, the diplomats said, but the mercenaries were backing Haftar — who has received support from Russia, the U.A.E. and Egypt — while Western governments have lined up behind the UN-endorsed government on the other side.
The Security Council is not required to take action on the report but members can refer it for investigation in their own countries.
Lancaster 6 is headed by former Australian air force pilot Christiaan Durrant, who, according to the company’s website, worked for Frontier Services Group until 2016. That group was founded by Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater Worldwide. There’s no suggestion in the report that Prince or any company with which he is affiliated had any role in his former employee’s mission.
Though short-lived, the deployment, as described in the UN report, shows how Haftar’s battle for control of Tripoli has escalated into an international struggle for influence over a divided country that sits atop Africa’s largest proven oil reserves.
Haftar launched his offensive on Tripoli a year ago but has been bogged down on the capital’s outskirts ever since, with the UN-backed government turning to Turkey for military assistance to fend off the offensive.
The Western military contractors would have been joining an increasingly crowded field in Libya, which has been enmeshed in violence since the 2011 NATO-backed rebellion that killed Qaddafi, fueling concerns in Europe that it could become a conduit for both migrants and militants.
As the conflict has become more complicated and drawn in different governments, thousands of Russian, Syrian and Sudanese mercenaries have been deployed to Libya to fight for various sides.
But unlike those often poorly-paid and equipped fighters, the Western mercenaries named in the UN report promised a sophisticated operation that could interdict arms shipments from Turkey to the government of Tripoli using vessels and helicopters, according to the two diplomats.
The report said the operation also called for a “targeting cell,” a group responsible for drones, and an attack helicopter, but was unable to determine if those plans went through.
On its website, Lancaster 6 says it works at “reducing violence” and specializes in “search and rescue” operations, among other services including oil field technical services and governance consulting.
Amanda Perry, a British national based in Dubai, heads Opus Capital Asset Ltd.
A letter from Vince Gordon, the lawyer representing Lodge, Durrant and Perry in the matter, disputed the accusations in the report, quoting Durrant as saying: “allegations about the unlawful activity of Opus and Lancaster 6 in Libya are simply not factual and spread based on a patchwork of half truths.”
The letter said that they had cooperated with the UN investigation and offered to meet the panel several times. “Our clients intend to vigorously defend themselves and their directors and employees against false and misleading allegations.”
In Malta, authorities have charged a local arms and logistics supplier, James Fenech, with violating sanctions for providing the two boats used by the mercenaries, Maltese press reported, citing a police statement.
Fenech told Bloomberg in an email that he was told the vessels were to be involved in an oil and gas project and he merely contracted them without crew “to be on standby for evacuation purposes.”
“I am not aware of anything wrong that Opus Capital our client did,” Fenech wrote. “Before entering in the agreement we asked our legal firm to do due diligence and nothing negative emerged on Opus Capital.”
A press release from Fenech’s company, Sovereign Charters Limited, said the two boats were chartered after the company was approached in June 2019 by a globally-known company operating in the U.A.E.
“Although the chartering agreement with the client was for 90 days, the situation in Libya had escalated rapidly and within a few days of their delivery the client decided to use the vessels to evacuate the personnel immediately,” the company said.
“Upon arrival in Malta, all 21 of the client’s evacuated management and personnel — mostly holding British, French, American, Australian and South African passports – were admitted according to all applicable Maltese laws and procedures.”
— With assistance by Matthew Hill