Magnum Opus: sanctions and the secret soldiers of Benghazi
04 Jun 2020

In August 2019, a report on the Malta Independent – since then removed from the newspaper’s website – revealed reports in the Arab press of a Malta-registered RHIB (rigid-hull inflatable boat), having been found abandoned by Libyan coast guards. The Manta 2, an MRC-1250 RHIB powered by four engines, had been abandoned by its occupants who would later squeeze into the Manta 1, their second RHIB – all 20 of them, making a crossing from Benghazi to Libya at the beginning of July. Unlike most crossings, these men were not fleeing the war in Libya, but had gone there to participate in it and partake of its spoils.

Sailing into Valletta’s busy Grand Harbour at the height of tourist season, they couldn’t but notice the difference from the ravaged port of Benghazi which they had left 18 hours before.

And what an 18 hours it had been. Mid-crossing, one of the RHIBs developed engine problems and suffered a lack of steering. After deciding against using the team’s satellite phone to call for help, team leader Steven Lodge ordered the vessel to be abandoned and the ten men it was carrying instead piled on to the second RHIB.

The Manta belonged to the ammunitions and firearms importer James Fenech’s company Sovereign Charters. It had been leased to Lodge, a representative of the UAE firm Opus Capital Asset, at €240,000 for each boat for a 90-day period. A related firm – Lancaster6 of Dubai – settled the account. Lancaster6 was owned by one-time Malta resident Christiaan Durrant, a former fighter pilot who worked alongside Blackwater founder Erik Prince at Frontier Services Group. The two men even sailed the 2017 Rolex Middle Sea Race on Prince’s yacht from Malta.

Did Fenech know Durrant? Yes, he told MaltaToday earlier this week after emerging from court, charged with having failed to obtain a permit from the Maltese sanctions monitoring board before leasing out the RHIBs for what he insists was an oil and gas personnel evacuation.

The two RHIBs – advertised on Sovereign’s website as “special forces RHIBs… for maritime security operations” – had been delivered to Benghazi on 27 June, driven by two former Royal Marines. The return party, a group of American, Australian, English and South African private military contractors, had failed their mission at the last minute. But their disappointment was probably nothing that the €73,000 they had each been paid for it couldn’t assuage.

Ditching any incriminating equipment and clothing in the sea, men prepared to make landfall in Malta. Their cover story was that they were working for oil and gas companies, providing security or geological surveys, claiming they decided to bug out because the security situation in Libya was deteriorating. Malta’s immigration police thought little of it at the time, but fined Sovereign Charters €15,000 because of the absence of visas on the men, who spent the rest of their Maltese sojourn in a five-star hotel before being released by police.

But a United Nations panel investigating PMC activity in Libya had described conditions in Benghazi as “calm and benign” at the time the 20 PMCs were evacuated to Malta.

Instead, it turns out, the men formed part of a UAE-financed plan to support Libyan renegade General Khalifa Haftar in a helicopter gunship plan. But Haftar reneging on his part of the deal – he is believed to have complained on the quality of the helicopters – must have made the already unsavoury situation on the ground in Libya all the less safe for the men: four pilots, a loadmaster, medic and 14 other PMCs.

Their paymasters, believed to be Opus Capital Asset, has denied providing support to Haftar and insisted it was not a private military company, claiming instead to have been involved in a project in Jordan, under which some assets were moved to Libya during the summer of 2019. But sources say the mission, named Project ‘Opus’, was supposed to provide armed groups affiliated to Haftar of the Libyan National Army with “rotary wing, maritime interdiction, cyber and unmanned aerial vehicle capabilities”. This entailed the purchase of three Gazelle and three Super Puma helicopters, which would be moved from South Africa to Benghazi using fake documentation meant to disguise their final destination.

The helicopter deal is now the subject of a criminal investigation in South Africa.

In tandem with this, 20 personnel were initially deployed from Amman in Jordan and Valletta around 27 June, 2019, but the operation was suddenly aborted on the evening of 2 July 2019. According to an exposé in the New York Times, the operation was called off on the afternoon of 2 July 2019 after Haftar complained about the quality of the aircraft.

The sudden cancellation of the mission meant that the 20 PMCs had to make the 350 nautical mile crossing from Libya to Malta in two RHIBs which had been chartered for the operation. One of the RHIBs had to be abandoned en route and was later recovered in Zuwetina, Libya.

Money? No problem

The 20 men tasked with carrying out the mission were paid $900 per day for three months. The total salary bill came to $1,620,000, which works out at a staggering $81,000 per man. Sovereign Charterers earned $68,954 for the search operation for the lost RHIB and was compensated to the tune of nearly half a million dollars – $497,534 to be exact, for the loss. Maltese company Fieldsports, also owned by James Fenech, was paid exactly $30,003 for ‘Marine Safety Equipment’, although the precise nature of the equipment is unclear. In total, the botched operation is estimated to have cost some $18 million.

UN investigators uncovered a tangled, incestuous web of companies and company officers related to the private military operation dubbed ‘Opus’ which was supposed to equip Haftar’s forces with helicopters and PMCs, in breach of UN sanctions.

It was Opus Capital Asset which entered into the contract for the RHIBs, but it was Lancaster6 which paid Fenech’s Sovereign Charters and Fieldsports. Indeed, Lancaster has its own Malta subsidiary. It also paid for the services of a Maltese lawyer on 3 July 2019, in case they were needed to settle any legal issues.

On the other hand, it was another Lancaster-related company, L-6 FZE, which entered into a contract for the transfer of the six helicopters, paid for by Opus Capital Assets.

Both Lancaster and Opus had shared officials: Durrant as the ultimate owner of Lancaster, while company secretary Amanda Perry as CEO of Opus Capital Assets.

By Matthew Agius, MaltaToday, 2 June 2020

Read more at MaltaToday

Photo: GerardvdSchaaf/CC-BY-2.0

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