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20th Jul 2018

European mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi, expert says

Between 300 and 500 European soldiers of fortune, including EU nationals, are working for Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, a leading criminologist has said.

The European mercenaries are mostly specialists in heavy weapons, helicopter technology and tactics and command fees of several thousand US dollars a day. The majority come from Belarus, Serbia and Ukraine. There is a significant amount of Polish helicopter experts. Belgian, British, French and Greek nationals are also involved.

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  • Detritus of war in Libya: specialists can command fees of several thousands of dollars a day (Photo: BRC)

The Europeans come on top of much larger numbers of hired fighters from the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Mali and Somalia, who are paid up to $2,000 a day. The men come and go via the 15-or-so still-operational military airports in southern Libya.

Gaddafi's official army has around 25,000 soldiers left due to desertions. But his sons also command three units of well-equipped militia, numbering between 35,000 and 50,000 men in total.

The information comes from Michel Koutouzis, a Greek expert on organised crime, whose French-registered company, Lotophages Consulting, does research on security issues for the EU institutions, the UN and the French government, and who spent February and March travelling in north Africa.

"In Libyan society, there is a taboo against killing people from your own tribal group. This is one reason why Gaddafi needs foreign fighters," Koutouzis told this website.

A contact linked to the rebel authorities, the Transitional National Council in Benghazi, told EUobserver that Algerian, Russian and Syrian serving military officers have also been helping Gaddafi.

"They began coming after the first US bombardment. Gaddafi changed his tactics - he brought in hundreds of four-by-four trucks from Algeria and stopped relying on tanks," the source said. "The Algerians and the Syrians are worried that Libya could set a bad example."

He added that Gaddafi uses mercenaries because he does not trust Libyans.

"There have been almost constant coups against him over the past 40 years. His personal bodyguard are all foreigners. In terms of his inner circle, the loyalists who really believe in him, it's about 10 people, and one of them [foreign minister Moussa Koussa] has defected."

For its part, Human Rights Watch, which has three people on the front lines in Libya, cast doubt on the reports.

The group's Peter Bouckaert referred to sources in South African mercenary circles, saying "they have not heard of any Europeans, South Africans or Zimbabweans going to fight for Gaddafi ... these networks are in touch with each other, so they would have heard."

He added that rebels tend to treat any sub-Saharan Africans they come across as mercenaries but that most of them are migrant workers. Bouckaert saw just one confirmed case of a hired fighter from Chad during four weeks in the field.

An EU security official and a Nato contact said they have not seen any internal reports about mercenaries. But the Nato source pointed to a press report about Colombian snipers in Misrata.

Looking at the history of mercenary activity in Africa, Alex Vines, a researcher at the Chatham House think-tank in London, said: "European mercenaries were a problem in the 1960s and then again in the 1990s after the Cold War ended. But it has become much more Africanised since then."

He added: "The definition of 'mercenary' is also an issue. What you more often have is individuals who are involved in selling weapons and then providing a bit of advice and training before disappearing."

A UN convention in 1989 defined a mercenary as "any person who is specially recruited locally or abroad in order to fight in an armed conflict; is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and ... is neither a national of a party to the conflict nor a resident of territory controlled by a party to the conflict."

The convention obliges participating countries to take criminal proceedings against nationals caught doing such activity. Just three EU states - Belgium, Cyprus and Italy - have signed up to the agreement out of a total 33 UN members.

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