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Investigation: a helicopters deal begins in RSA through UAE to Haftar’s forces

Investigation by Maltese journalist Matthew Agius into a helicopter deal that circumvented the international arms embargo and involved the Republic of South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Haftar forces in Libya.

The material was published without editorial intervention.

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ORIGINAL TITLE: Investigators uncover roles of mercenaries in UAE-backed Libya helicopter gunship plan

SUB-TITLE: Names of pilots, loadmaster, and medic all part of team that used Malta companies to channel payments from UAE to British Virgin Islands companies.

VALLETTA, (BM) – The 20 private military contractors (PMCs) who were evacuated from war-torn Libya aboard two Malta-leased RHIBs and to Valletta, were aviation experts getting ready to operate assault helicopters, MaltaToday has learnt.

A full list of names in this newspaper’s possession clearly shows the men who arrived at the Valletta seaport on the Manta-1 rigid inflatable boat on 3 July were not oil and gas personnel, but PMCs with evident military experience.

The men were released from their arrest by police two days after the Maltese company that leased them the two RHIBs, Sovereign Charters, accepted to pay a €15,000 fine for immigration irregularities.

Now police investigators have learned that the men were specialist pilots engaged to operate six utility and support helicopters, to be armed for “assault and interdiction operations”; as well as seacraft from Malta with maritime interdiction capability to target the sea supply route for weapons from Turkey to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

They included team leader Steven Lodge, a pilot; and pilots Travis Maki of geosciences firm Bridgeporth, Ryan Hogan, and Matthew Coughlin; Andrew Furness was identified as the helicopter loadmaster in the mission; other PMCs were South Africans Sean Baker, a medic, Hendrik Bam, Christian Du Preez, Andre Greyvenstein, Gilliam and Joseph Joubert, Rudi Koekemoer, Quintan Paul, Lucas Schutte and Abel Smit; Britons Michael Allen, David Button, coxswains Sean Callaghan Louw and Andrew Scott Ritchie, a former Royal Marines commando, and Australian Richard Parish.

Business connections

The two RHIBs were leased by James Fenech’s Sovereign Charterers to UAE firm Opus Capital Asset FZE, whose managing director Amanda Perry is the company secretary of Lancaster 6 Limited, a Malta company – as well as managing director of UAE firm Lancaster6 DMCC and CEO of L-6 FZE.

Lancaster 6 is owned by former Australian fighter pilot and sometime Malta resident Christiaan Durrant, a former associate of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. Prince is the brother of the US Secretary for Education under the Trump Administration, Betsy DeVos.

Fenech is now the subject of a criminal case in which he is charged with breaching EU sanctions on Libya. Durrant is the CEO of the BVI-registered company L6 Group Holdings, which ultimately owns Lancaster 6.

In information seen by MaltaToday, the UAE companies Lancaster 6 and L-6 FZE supplied ‘Project Opus’ with three SA341 Gazelle helicopters and three AS332 Super-Puma helicopters – procured from South Africa – as well as the two Malta RHIBs.

The helicopters were to be armed with 7.62mm medium machine guns and destined for Haftar’s forces, which are supported by the UAE, as well as Russian mercenaries and Egypt.

In addition to these, plans were in the works for the procurement of an AH-1F Cobra attack helicopter – a deadly gunship normally armed with missiles, rockets and a three barrel 20mm autocannon.

Investigators found that Fenech’s Sovereign Charterers leased the two RHIBs – Manta-1 and Manta-2 – to Opus Capital Asset FZE, represented by Steven John Lodge, for €2,500 per day each for a ninety-day period from 20 June to 17 September 2019, a total of €240,000 per RHIB.

The account was settled by funds transferred from a Lancaster6 DMCC bank account.

The six military helicopters were procured from South Africa in June 2019, transported by flatbed truck to Botswana and subsequently to Benghazi.

The 20 private military contractors were deployed to Benghazi from Amman, Jordan in late June 2019, arriving on board a commercial turboprop cargo plane.

The operators’ cover story was that the equipment was procured for a “geophysical and hyperspectral survey of Jordan”. False documentation, including false customs declarations and air waybills allowed transit of the helicopters through Botswana and finally into Libya.

According to an exposé in the New York Times, the operation was aborted on the afternoon of 2 July 2019 after Haftar complained about the quality of the aircraft, with the 20 private military operatives being evacuated from Benghazi to Valletta on board the two RHIBs. One of their boats ran into trouble and had to be abandoned. All 20 men crammed onto a single boat and continued to Malta. Weeks later, the abandoned boat was found by the Libyan Coast Guard and photographs of it appeared in local news media. Both Opus Capital and Lancaster 6 were cooperating with the United Nations investigators and had offered to meet them.

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