Media reports said:
Erik Prince, the private security executive and supporter of former U.S. President Donald Trump, “at the very least” helped evade an arms embargo on Libya, according to excerpts from a UN report.
Independent UN sanctions monitors accused Prince of proposing a private military operation – known as ‘Project Opus’ – to Libya’s eastern-based commander General Khalifa Haftar in April 2019 and helping procure three aircraft for it.
A spokesperson for Prince denied the accusations in the annual UN report, which was submitted on Thursday to the Security Council Libya sanctions committee and is due to be made public next month.
“Erik Prince had absolutely nothing to do with any operation in Libya in 2019, or at any other time,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The UN monitors wrote in the report that they had “identified that Erik Prince made a proposal for the operation to Haftar in Cairo, Egypt on, or about, 14 April 2019.” Haftar was in Cairo at the time to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The report described Prince’s proposal as “a well-funded private military company operation” designed to provide Haftar with armed assault helicopters, intelligence surveillance aircraft, maritime interdiction, drones and cyber, intelligence and targeting capabilities.
“The Project Opus plan also included a component to kidnap or terminate individuals regarded as high value targets in Libya,” the monitors wrote.
Libya has descended into chaos after NATO’s armed intervention overthrow of leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 when the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo. The country has been divided into two parts since 2014 between the internationally recognized government in its west and Haftar’s eastern-based forces.
The UN monitors reported that the air and maritime component of ‘Project Opus’ had to be aborted in June 2019 after Haftar was unimpressed with the aircraft procured for the operations and “made threats against the team management.”
“Project Opus private military operatives were deployed to Libya for a second time in April and May 2020 in order to locate and destroy high value targets,” said the UN monitors, but the operation again had to be aborted due to security concerns.
The rival Libyan administrations agreed a ceasefire in October, but have not pulled back their forces. Haftar is supported by the United Arab Emirates while the government is backed by Turkey. Egypt had backed Haftar, but Sisi last week offered his country’s support to Libya’s interim government.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has demanded an end to foreign interference in Libya.
Prince, the brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, founded the private security firm Blackwater and was a pioneer in private military contracting after U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003.
Blackwater sparked international outrage in 2007 when its employees shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. One of the employees was convicted of murder in December 2018 and three others were convicted of manslaughter. Trump pardoned the four men in December last year.
The confidential report is the result of an 18-month investigation and was delivered to the UN Security Council on Thursday and later leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post.
According to investigators, Prince pitched the $80 million mercenary operation to General Khalifa Haftar shortly after his assault on Tripoli, which began in April 2019 and sparked the country’s civil war.
The brazen mission allegedly proposed by Prince included plans to form a hit squad to track and kill Libyan commanders opposed to Haftar – including some who were also European Union citizens, the New York Times reported.
Four days after Prince’s reported meeting with Gen Haftar, the Trump administration publicly endorsed the militia leader, reversing U.S. policy on Libya and supporting the assault on the capital.
It is not the first time that Prince, a former US Navy Seal, has faced allegations over the use of privatized American military forces.
The leaked report has raised questions over whether Prince, a major donor and ally to the former Republican president, could have used his ties with the Trump administration to pull off the Libya operation.
It alleges that an associate of Prince, who is accused of acting as an intermediary in the operation, attempted to buy US-made Cobra helicopters from the Jordanian military and assured officials in the country he had received clearances “at the highest level,” for the purchase and transfer of the aircraft.
The transfer of American military aircraft and heavy weapons to Libya is banned under UN arms embargoes and U.S. law. The accusations in the UN report expose Prince to possible UN sanctions, including a travel ban, if found guilty the New York Times said.
According to the UN report, Jordanians officials grew concerned about the transfer and stopped the sale, forcing the mercenaries to source new aircraft from South Africa.
According to the report, a band of 20 mercenaries, which included Britons, Australians, South Africans and one American, arrived in Benghazi in June 2019 but enraged Haftar who accused them of failing to deliver on a promise of U.S.-made Cobra helicopters.
In light of the dispute, the mercenaries, who claimed to be working on a geological survey or an oil and gas project, left Libya by boat on June 29, making a 40-hour journey across the Mediterranean to reach Malta.
But the group left behind several attack aircraft and a long trail of paperwork that eventually led UN investigators to Prince, the report alleged.
According to the New York Times, among the evidence listed in the 121-page UN report was a PowerPoint presentation shown to Haftar which listed potential “high value targets” for assassination, including Abdulrauf Kara, a major commander in Tripoli, and two other Libyan commanders who hold Irish passports, suggesting the mercenaries were ready to target European citizens if necessary.
Investigators also obtained phone records that claim to show Prince’s associate made several calls to the White House switchboard in late July 2019, after the mercenary operation had found itself in trouble, one official told the New York Times. It was unclear whether the associate spoke to anyone at the White House.
Hollywood, the inspiration
According to the New York Times, the group sometimes took inspiration from Hollywood in carrying out their plans. While attempting to secure the Cobra aircraft in Jordan, Prince’s associate reportedly used the cover name Gene Rynack – a reference to a cowboy pilot played by Mel Gibson in the film “Air America”.