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Thursday, May 6, 2004 05:02 pm

Hired guns

When a suicide bomber parked a van disguised as an ambulance in front of the Shaheen Hotel in the Karadah neighborhood of Baghdad on Jan. 28 and blew himself up, he killed four people and wounded scores of others.

He also blew the lid off a dirty little secret of the Coalition Provisional Authority: Due to its "outsourcing" of privatized security services, the CPA has put terrorists, mercenaries, and war criminals on the payrolls of companies contracted by the Pentagon.

After the Shaheen Hotel blast, departmental spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa at South Africa's Foreign Ministry confirmed that one of the Westerners killed was South African Frans Strydom. Four of the wounded were also South African nationals, including Deon Gouws, who sustained serious injuries.

News that Strydom and Gouws were in Iraq sent shockwaves throughout South Africa: In front of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both men were granted amnesty after confessing to killing blacks and terrorizing anti-apartheid activists.

In Iraq, Strydom and Gouws were employed by Erinys International, a security firm based in the United Kingdom. Erinys Iraq, the subsidiary of Erinys International, was awarded a two-year, $80 million contract in August 2003 to protect 140 Iraqi oil installations. Erinys has been awarded subcontracts to protect American construction contractors, including San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. and Halliburton's subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root.

Strydom was a member in the Koevoet, Afrikaans for "Crowbar," an outlaw group that paid bounty for the bodies of blacks seeking independence during the 1980s. The Koevoet terrorized blacks in Namibia and northern South Africa for more than a decade.

More notorious is Gouws' past. A former police officer, Gouws was a member of the notorious Vlakplaas death squad that terrorized blacks under apartheid. Only after Col. Eugene de Kock, a former death-squad leader who supervised Gouws, applied for amnesty, did the activities of the Vlakplaas come to light. Gouws faced a choice: repent by confessing, or be charged with crimes. He applied for amnesty, confessing to killing 15 blacks and firebombing the homes of "between 40 and 60 anti-apartheid activists."

"At what point do we start scraping the barrel?" Simon Faulkner, the CEO of Hart, a respected British security company, asked recently in the New York Times.

Erinys International refused to comment.

This story was distributed by AlterNet.

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