Washington - Erik Prince, the founder of the international security giant Blackwater Worldwide, is backing an effort by a controversial South African mercenary firm to insert itself into Somalia's bloody civil war by protecting government leaders, training Somali troops, and battling pirates and Islamic militants there, according to American and Western officials.
The disclosure comes as Mr. Prince sells off his interest in the company he built into a behemoth with billions of dollars in American government contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, work that mired him in lawsuits and investigations amid reports of reckless behavior by his operatives, including causing the deaths of civilians in Iraq. His efforts to wade into the chaos of Somalia appear to be Mr. Prince's latest endeavor to remain at the center of a campaign against Islamic radicalism in some of the world's most war-ravaged corners. Mr. Prince moved to the United Arab Emirates late last year.
With its barely functional government and a fierce hostility to foreign armies since the hasty American withdrawal from Mogadishu in the early 1990s, Somalia is a country where Western militaries have long feared to tread. The Somali government has been cornered in a small patch of Mogadishu by the Shabab, a Somali militant group with ties to Al Qaeda.
This, along with the growing menace of piracy off Somalia's shores, has created an opportunity for private security companies like the South African firm Saracen International to fill the security vacuum created by years of civil war. It is another illustration of how private security firms are playing a bigger role in wars around the world, with some governments seeing them as a way to supplement overtaxed armies, while others complain that they are unaccountable.
Mr. Prince's precise role remains unclear. Some Western officials said that it was possible Mr. Prince was using his international contacts to help broker a deal between Saracen executives and officials from the United Arab Emirates, which have been financing Saracen in Somalia because Emirates business operations have been threatened by Somali pirates.
According to a report by the African Union, an organization of African states, Mr. Prince provided initial financing for a project by Saracen to win contracts with Somalia's embattled government.
A spokesman for Mr. Prince challenged this report, saying that Mr. Prince had "no financial role of any kind in this matter," and that he was primarily involved in humanitarian efforts and fighting pirates in Somalia.
"It is well known that he has long been interested in helping Somalia overcome the scourge of piracy," said the spokesman, Mark Corallo. "To that end, he has at times provided advice to many different anti-piracy efforts."
Saracen International is based in South Africa, with corporate offshoots in Uganda and other countries. The company, which declined to comment, was formed with the remnants of Executive Outcomes, a private mercenary firm composed largely of former South African special operations troops who worked throughout Africa in the 1990s.
The company makes little public about its operations and personnel, but it appears to be run by Lafras Luitingh, a former officer in South Africa's Civil Cooperation Bureau, an apartheid-era internal security force notorious for killing opponents of the government.
American officials have said little about Saracen since news reports about the company's planned operations in Somalia emerged last month. Philip J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said in December that the American government was "concerned about the lack of transparency" of Saracen's financing and plans.
Somali forces are also being trained in Uganda.
Saracen has yet to formally announce its plans in Somalia, and there appear to be bitter disagreements within Somalia's fractious government about whether to hire the South African firm. Somali officials have said that Saracen's operations — which would also include training an antipiracy army in the semiautonomous region of Puntland — are being financed by an anonymous Middle Eastern country.
Several people with knowledge of Saracen's operations confirmed that that was the United Arab Emirates.
A spokesman for the Emirates's Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Saracen or on Mr. Prince's involvement in the company.
One person involved in the project, speaking on condition of anonymity because Saracen's plans were not yet public, said that new ideas for combating piracy and battling the Shabab are needed because "to date, other missions have not been successful."
At least one of Saracen's past forays into training militias drew an international rebuke. Saracen's Uganda subsidiary was implicated in a 2002 United Nations Security Council report for training rebel paramilitary forces in Congo.
That report identified one of Saracen Uganda's owners as Lt. Gen. Salim Saleh, the retired half-brother of Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni. The report also accused General Saleh and other Ugandan officers of using their ties to paramilitaries to plunder Congolese diamonds, gold and timber.
According to a Jan. 12 confidential report by the African Union, Mr. Prince "is at the top of the management chain of Saracen and provided seed money for the Saracen contract." A Western official working in Somalia said he believed that it was Mr. Prince who first raised the idea of the Saracen contract with members of the Emirates's ruling families, with whom he has a close relationship.
Two former American officials are helping broker the delicate negotiations between the Somali government, Saracen and the Emirates.
The officials, Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former United States ambassador at large for war crimes, and Michael Shanklin, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Mogadishu, are both serving as advisers to the Somali government, according to people involved in the project. Both Mr. Prosper and Mr. Shanklin are apparently being paid by the United Arab Emirates.
Saracen is now training a 1,000-member antipiracy militia in Puntland, in northern Somalia, and plans a separate militia in Mogadishu. The company has trained a first group of 150 militia members and is drilling a second group of equal size, an official familiar with the company's operations said.
In December, Somalia's Ministry of Information issued a news release saying that Saracen was contracted to train security personnel and to carry out humanitarian work. That statement said the contract "is a limited engagement that is clearly defined and geared towards filling a need that is not met by other sources at this time."
For years, Mr. Prince, a multimillionaire former Navy SEAL, has tried to spot new business opportunities in the security world. In 2008, he sought to capitalize on the growing rash of piracy off the Horn of Africa to win Blackwater contracts from companies that frequent the shipping lanes there. He even reconfigured a 183-foot oceanographic research vessel into a pirate-hunting ship for hire, complete with drone aircraft and .50-caliber machine guns.
In the spring of 2005, he met with Central Intelligence Agency officials about his proposal for a "quick reaction force" — a special cadre of Blackwater personnel who could handle paramilitary assignments for the agency anywhere in the world.
Mr. Prince began his pitch at C.I.A. headquarters by stating "from the early days of the American republic, the nation has relied on mercenaries for its defense," according to a former government official who attended the meeting.
The pitch was not particularly well received, said the former official, because Mr. Prince was, in essence, proposing to replace the spy agency's own in-house paramilitary force, the Special Activities Division.
Despite all of Blackwater's legal troubles, Mr. Prince has never been charged with any criminal activity.
In an interview in the November issue of Men's Journal, Mr. Prince expressed frustration with the wave of lawsuits filed against Blackwater, which is now known as Xe Services.
Mr. Prince, who said moving to Abu Dhabi would "make it harder for the jackals to get my money," said he intended to find opportunities in "the energy field."
Jeffrey Gettleman contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.
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