Trump ally Erik Prince denies role in Libya mercenary operation

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NAIROBI, Kenya – In response to accusations by United Nations investigators that he violated an international arms embargo, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide and prominent supporter of Donald J. Trump, denied having played a role in an $ 80 million mercenary operation in Libya in 2019. And he insisted that the main findings of the UN investigation were entirely wrong.

“Erik Prince did not violate any arms embargo and has nothing to do with sending planes, drones, weapons or people to Libya – period,” he said in an interview with the New York Times.

A confidential report submitted to the UN Security Council and obtained by The Times on Thursday accused Prince of violating the arms embargo imposed on Libya for ten years by taking part in an ill-fated mercenary operation in 2019 which aimed to support a powerful Libyan commander in his desire to overthrow the Libyan government backed by the international community.

Mr. Prince, who came under international scrutiny after his Blackwater contractors slaughtered 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, has been a staunch supporter of Mr. Trump in recent years. His sister, Betsy DeVos, was Mr. Trump’s education secretary.

Speaking by phone, Prince challenged key claims in the UN report, lashed out at critics and downplayed his ties to the former president. He said he had only met Mr. Trump once as president, at a Veterans Day event, and that he had never discussed Libya or any another political question with him.

“I was not the president’s foreign policy adviser,” he added, apparently referring to media reports using this description. “So stop characterizing me like that.” This is not true. “

Mr. Prince and his lawyer admitted that they had not seen the UN report, nor the many specific allegations listed therein, which included dozens of pages of PowerPoint presentations, contracts, bank transfers, SMS and other evidence. And Mr. Prince has not provided any tangible evidence to counter these allegations.

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Gregg Smith, who worked with Mr. Prince between 2014 and 2016 and is cited in the report, said the mercenary operation described by investigators in Libya had many similarities to a project Mr. Prince led in Sudan from South in 2014.

“They are the same people and the same plane,” Smith said.

Mr. Prince’s general denials raise the stakes in the confidential report, which is currently before the Security Council and is expected to be released next month. The report opens up the possibility that Mr Prince could be sanctioned with an asset freeze and a travel ban, although such sanctions are rarely imposed by the United Nations.

A central accusation of the report is that Mr. Prince pitched the $ 80 million mercenary project to Libyan militia commander Khalifa Hifter at a meeting in Cairo in April 2019, just days after Mr. Hifter launched. a vast military campaign to seize the Libyan capital, Tripoli. .

Mr. Prince insisted it was impossible. “I have never met General Hifter,” he said. “Was not in Egypt in 2019. Never even spoke to the man.

The report says the meeting coincided with a sharp shift in the Trump administration’s approach to Libya.

A day after the meeting described in the report, on April 15, Mr. Trump telephoned Mr. Hifter and publicly acknowledged his “important role in combating terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,” said the White House in a statement at the time.

Four days later, Mr. Trump surprised his aides by openly endorsing Mr. Hifter’s advance on Tripoli, which amounted to a radical reversal of U.S. policy toward Libya. Before that, the United States supported the government Mr. Hifter was trying to overthrow.

Mr Prince says he tried to influence the president only through newspaper articles, where in 2017 in the TBEN he proposed a private border force to stem illegal migration from Libya and in the Wall Street Journal has suggested a force of private entrepreneurs to fight in Afghanistan. . “I wish he had listened,” Prince said. “I would have liked him to listen to the advice I gave him in the articles.

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Mr Prince also said he had never discussed Libya with two other figures close to Mr Trump: Jared Kushner, son-in-law and adviser to the former president, and Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state .

The mercenary operation linked to Mr Prince by the UN report is just the latest episode to highlight the role of foreign forces in the sprawling and chaotic war that engulfed Libya after its longtime dictator , Colonel Muammar el-Kadhafi, was ousted during the Arab War Spring 2011.

The United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Russia, Egypt and other countries have taken sides in the fight, sending money, fighters and powerful weapons in an attempt to influence the future of the northern nation. -african oil-rich.

Mr Hifter, who dominates most of eastern Libya, is arguably the country’s most powerful commander. He faced scathing international criticism in April 2019 when he began his campaign to capture Tripoli with the support of the Emirates and, later, Russian mercenaries.

UN investigators claim that a team of 20 British, Australian, South African and American mercenaries was secretly deployed to Libya in June 2019 as part of the $ 80 million plan to assist Mr. Hifter, then in his campaign to capture Tripoli.

The mercenaries arrived with military planes and boats smuggled from South Africa and Europe, and offered to form a strike team to locate and assassinate Mr Hifter’s main enemy commander, according to the report.

But the operation hit a roadblock when Jordan refused to sell American-made Cobra gunships to mercenaries, and then turned into disaster when a dispute with Mr. Hifter forced the mercenaries to flee Libya by boat. across the Mediterranean.

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At that time, Mr. Prince says, he was in the mountains of Wyoming and later, on a trip to Alaska and Canada with his son.

“It is difficult to conduct a mercenary operation from the northern hinterland of the Yukon Territory,” he said.

The UN report says Mr. Prince transferred three of his own planes to Libya for use in Mr. Hifter’s war campaign.

Investigators say a paper trail led them from Prince-controlled companies in Bermuda, Bulgaria and the United States that owned the planes to the Libyan battlefield.

Mr. Prince has stumbled in his explanation of his businesses. Mr Prince’s attorney contradicted him when Mr Prince said he was the owner of Bridgeporth, a UK polling company which UN investigators said was used to cover M Prince.

He doesn’t know or care who ultimately bought the planes that ended up in Libya, he said.

And he said he refused to cooperate with United Nations investigators – a group of six knowledgeable about illicit weapons and financial transfers officially known as the Panel of Experts – because he believed that they intended to denigrate him. “There is no due process,” he said. “It’s hatchet work.”

A Western official said UN investigators had already formally recommended sanctions against a friend and former business partner of Mr. Prince for his involvement in the mercenaries project.

Today Mr Prince, facing a battle for his reputation, at least in the United Nations, said he was the victim of a dark and secret image that he himself has long cultivated.

“My name has become a bait for people who like to weave conspiracy theories together,” Prince said. “And if they add my name, it always attracts attention. And it’s really sickening.

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