UNITED NATIONS (AP) — American security contractor Erik Prince, a close ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, violated the U.N. arms embargo against Libya along with three United Arab Emirates-based companies and their top managers during an operation to help a rebel military commander take the capital Tripoli, U.N. experts said.
In a key section of a report to the U.N. Security Council obtained Saturday by The Associated Press, the panel of experts outlined “a well-funded private military company operation” called “Project Opus” designed to provide military equipment to eastern-based commander Khalifa Hifter.
“The Project Opus plan also included a component to kidnap or terminate individuals regarded as high value targets in Libya,” the experts said.
Prince and another man named in the report denied any wrongdoing.
The plan was first reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Oil-rich Libya was plunged into chaos after a 2011 NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and split the country between a U.N.-supported government in Tripoli and rival authorities based in the country’s east, each side backed by an array of local militias as well as regional and foreign powers.
In April 2019, Hifter and his forces, backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive to try and capture Tripoli. His campaign collapsed after Turkey stepped up its military support of the U.N.-supported government with hundreds of troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries. An October cease-fire agreement has led to an agreement on a transitional government and elections scheduled for Dec. 24.
The panel of experts report said it identified “Project Opus” in June 2019.
It was designed to have private military companies provide Hifter’s forces with “armed assault rotary wing aviation, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, maritime interdiction, cyber, UAV, and intelligence fusion and targeting capabilities,” the experts said,
Prince became involved when Jordanian authorities became aware of elements of the plan “and suspended the auction” of surplus military helicopters to Hifter on June 18, 2019, according to the experts.
“This required the Project Opus team to initiate a contingency plan to rapidly identify and procure new aircraft,” the panel said.
“These included three medium utility helicopters from a South African company and three light utility helicopters from a United Arab Emirates company,” the experts said. “Also purchased within a tight time frame were an Antonov AN-26B from a Bermudian company, a LASA T-Bird light attack aircraft from a Bulgarian company, and a Pilatus PC-6 ISR aircraft from an Austrian company.”
The panel said the Antonov, LASA light attack aircraft and Pilatus “were deployed before any payment and the normal due diligence took place, thus demonstrating that a fourth individual, Erik Dean Prince (USA), who controlled the companies owning the aircraft, assisted in procurement for the operation.”
“No one else was in a position to arrange the sale of these aircraft within such a short time frame,” the experts said.
The panel said further investigations “identified that Erik Prince made a proposal for the operation to Khalifa Hifter in Cairo, Egypt on, or about, April 14, 2019.”
The panel said it therefore “finds that Erik Prince” violated the 2011 Security Council resolution imposing an arms embargo against Libya “in that, at the very least, he … assisted in the evasion of, the provisions of the arms embargo in Libya.”
Prince, founder of the controversial security firm Blackwater, soared to notoriety after Blackwater employees in 2007 shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in central Baghdad during the Iraq war. After the scandal, the company’s name was changed and Prince sold his shares to a private equity fund. He reportedly now heads a private equity fund focused on investments in frontier emerging markets.
Prince was accused of acting as a back channel on behalf of Trump. His sister, Betsy DeVos, was the secretary of education in the Trump administration.
The Washington Post reported that a lawyer representing Prince said he had broken no laws. “Erik Prince had absolutely nothing to do with any operation in Libya in 2019, or at any other time,” lawyer Matthew Schwartz said in an email, according to the paper.
The panel of experts said “three United Arab Emirates based companies were primarily used for the planning, management and finance of the operation” under Project Opus.
It identified them as Lancaster 6 DMCC, L-6 FZE, and Opus Capital Asset Limited FZE.
The companies were “controlled and managed” by Christiaan Paul Durrant of Australia and a woman from the United Kingdom, with the ground team leader from South Africa.
The New York Times said it contacted Durrant through his Facebook page and he declined to comment and referred to a statement he issued to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in September 2020. It quoted the statement as saying: “We don’t breach sanctions; we don’t deliver military services, we don’t carry guns, and we are not mercenaries.”
The panel said “all three companies and individuals were found … to have violated” the 2011 council resolution “in that they had each violated, or assisted in the evasion of, the provisions of the arms embargo in Libya.”
It said the UAE, which could provide a lot of assistance to the panel, has not responded to any panel requests for information, “and the responses from Jordan and South Africa provided little of the substantive information requested by the panel.”
According to the experts, the helicopter and maritime interdiction component of Operation Opus was aborted on June 29, 2019, when the ground team leader decided to evacuate 20 private military operatives to Malta using two special forces “rigid hulled inflatable boats” for the 350 nautical mile voyage from the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi to Malta’s capital Valetta.
“The decision to evacuate was taken as Hifter was unimpressed with the replacement aircraft procured for the operations and made threats against the team management,” the experts said.
The panel said the Pilatus aircraft deployed to Libya on June 25, 2019 and was available for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance ISR operations in Libya from Benghazi, Al Jufra and Brak Shati from at least June 26, 2019 to Dec. 24, 2020. Its capabilities provided Hifter with “a force multiplier” for these operations and targeting activities, the experts said.
The panel said 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, but this time planning to use military equipment supplied by the UAE.”
The operation was aborted, it said, because any helicopter assault would be “highly vulnerable to interdiction” by Libyan government air defense capabilities.