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7th Dec 2019

Investigation

Ashton to spend €15mn on private security firms

  • Ashton in Benghazi last year - Hungarian firm Argus does EU security in Libya (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Catherine Ashton's External Action Service (EEAS) is to spend €15 million on private security firms this year as part of broader efforts to protect diplomats overseas.

The money is to cover "fully integrated security services" at its outposts in Beirut, Benghazi, Islamabad, Jerusalem, Kabul, Port-au-Prince, Riyadh, Sanaa and Tripoli.

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It will spend €35 million more on hiring day-to-day security guards for the rest of its 136 foreign delegations. Some other places are also classed as risky (diplomats are asked not to take families to Baghdad and Monrovia), but do not qualify for the "fully integrated" treatment.

The Afghanistan mission is currently protected by armed ex-military types, including former Nepalese Gurkhas, supplied by London-based firm Page Group. When the EU ambassador leaves his compound, he travels in a convoy of three cars with seven bodyguards. Last year, someone took a pot shot at his window while he was briefing staff. In 2010, he was nearly hit by a rocket at a tribal congress.

Budapest-based security firm Argus takes care of embassies in Haiti, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. London-based company Control Risks looks after Israel and another British firm, Saladin, does Pakistan.

The EU foreign corps last year put Argus and Page Group, as well as French company Geos, Canadian firm GardaWorld and British company G4S on a special shortlist. The listing means that if a new job comes up, the EEAS can hire one of them in a decision which takes just two weeks, instead of a year or so, as with a normal EU tender.

The set-up means Saladin and Control Risks could be on their way out as old contracts expire. But Control Risks in January opened a mini-office in Brussels "to develop relationships with clients in Belgium and Luxembourg, including EU institutions."

Private security companies got a bad name in 2007 when US firm Blackwater machine-gunned 17 Iraqi civilians and got off with an out-of-court pay-off to victims' families.

An EEAS contact told EUobserver that national laws - whether, say, Libyan or Yemeni - govern contractors' use of violence. He noted that a company's "track record" is a factor in getting EU work and that "to [his] knowledge" no EU private security guard has ever fired his weapon in the line of duty.

Not all the EU-linked companies have squeaky clean histories, however.

Afghan police in January arrested two GardaWorld men driving a car full of AK-47s with filed-off serial numbers. British police last year detained three G4S people after an Angolan man died in their custody in Heathrow airport.

Meanwhile, the men behind Saladin reportedly smuggled guns to anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan in the 1970s and to anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Ashton's €15-million-a-year special security budget is tiny compared to what member states shell out. According to foreign office figures provided to EUobserver, the UK between mid-2006 and mid-2010 spent €196 million on private security in Iraq alone.

The EEAS last year also hired three experts from EU countries to beef up security.

Frans Potuyt, a former Dutch ambassador to Kazakhstan and head of security at the Dutch foreign ministry, now runs the EEAS' security department. Mike Croll, a former security director at the British foreign office, looks after overseas missions, while Attila Lajos, a former Hungarian intelligence officer, looks after its headquarters in Brussels.

The EEAS contact said it also has counter-intelligence people "with the appropriate background" on its payroll. "If we felt the need to sweep a diplomat's residence for bugs, we have ways to do this internally or with the help of member states' services," he added.

The head of security at its Kiev and Moscow embassies, for instance - an Italian national - is said to have good contacts with Ukrainian ex-intelligence officers who now work as private eyes or dabble in organised crime.

Stick 'em up

As for G4S, the company already supplies more than 1,500 security guards for the EEAS, European Commission, EU Council and European Parliament buildings in the EU capital.

The firm's parliament contract is up for renewal at a time when its reputation is under a question mark - a bank, a canteen and a post office inside parliament were each robbed in the past three years with no one caught.

A parliament official said G4S is not to blame because the building has so many escape routes and because insiders helped perpetrators to smuggle in guns or replicas and to evade CCTV. The contact noted that little has been done to improve things - such as splitting inside space into separate secure zones - since the last robbery, however.

"The real issue is if you have an armed attack and the guy is free to run around inside and maybe three or four floors away you have a hearing with [French leader] Sarkozy and the two of them meet - that would be a huge incident," he said.

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