A powerful special forces-type dinghy that was found abandoned in Libya in July was being used by private military contractors on a secretive weapons shipment surveillance mission, well placed military sources have told The Malta Independent on Sunday.
The team members had to ditch one of two vessels they were using after it malfunctioned and sail towards Malta. Upon arrival, they were temporarily detained because they did not have a visa – a fact that was confirmed to this newspaper by the Malta Police Force.
In July, it was reported that a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB), was found abandoned in the port of Zueitina, some 150 kilometres south of Benghazi.
Libyan news websites had initially reported that the boat belonged to the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM), while some sections of the press speculated that it could have been used to insert western special forces or intelligence teams into the region, where militants of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ terror group are still active.
The AFM had told this newsroom that the RHIB was not theirs. The Malta Independent had later established that the boat had been chartered by a Maltese company called Standard Charterers. The company said at the time that the vessel had been leased out to operators in the oil and gas industry for logistics and crew requirements.
“The client reported to us that due to weather conditions the vessel broke its moors and was completely submerged and nearly impossible for salvage. The vessel was then abandoned,” it said.
But new information obtained by this newspaper seems to show that the people who rented out the vessel might have not been so forthcoming with the chartering company.
The Malta Independent on Sunday is now informed that two RHIBS were chartered, one of which had to be abandoned.
A source said two private security teams led by a South African were using the RHIBS off Benghazi and were “observing weapons shipments going into Libya.” The source added that the contractors were possibly acting in support of Libyan general Khalifa Haftar’s forces.
The contractors were possibly employed by a local private security company that was subcontracted by a US PMC (private military company), this newsroom was told.
At one point, the team leader ‘got cold feet’ and decided to head over to Malta, the source added. One of the boats developed engine trouble and had to be ditched, with its crew transferring to the second RHIB. A lot of equipment was lost in the process, the source said.
Upon arrival to Malta, some of the team members were arrested because they did not have visas, the source said, adding that had the team members been Maltese or foreigners with documents allowing them to stay and work in Malta, there would not have been any problems.
Contacted by this newsroom, the Malta Police Force’s press office said: “Kindly note that persons were detained temporarily on arrival in order to clarify the circumstances of their arrival in Malta without a visa.”
The office later clarified that no further action is being pursued. “Immigration procedures have been carried out in line with legislation. The persons who arrived without a visa have left the Schengen area and there is nothing pending in their regard with reference to this occurrence.”
The police had previously said that they were involved in the investigation of a similar rigid-hulled inflatable boat used to bring over (South African and EU) workers evacuated from Libya. “The Malta police have no information that indicates that the rigid-hulled inflatable boat was being used for other illicit purposes,” a spokesperson had said.
Migrant rescue NGOs and fishermen are aware of private security personnel operating in the southern Mediterranean region, The Malta Independent on Sunday is informed.
Nevertheless, there is nothing to suggest that these operations are illegal.
The source said it was odd that private security companies were operating from Malta in support of the Libyan opposition when the Maltese government, like the EU, backs Tripoli’s UN-recognised government. Questions sent to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs remained unanswered.
The source referred to the 2016 crash of a French ‘spy’ plane in Luqa. While the authorities had initially claimed that the plane was used by French customs to carry out surveillance on human and drug trafficking, it later transpired that the aircraft was being used by French intelligence services to track weapon movements in Libya.
MaltaToday had reported that a nine-person spy cell had been operating out of a residence in Balzan, monitoring weapons shipments sent to the troubled North African state to ensure that they reached ‘the right hands’. All this was being done despite an arms embargo.
The aircraft was leased out by a private charter company based in Luxembourg and was flown by two private contractors. The other tree fatalities were members of the DGSE – France’s external intelligence agency. When the Maltese police went to the Balzan residence they found that all evidence and equipment had been removed hurriedly.
Earlier this week, Libyan news website Libya Observer, quoting an Al Jazeera report, said French military units were operating drones in support of Haftar’s forces in Libya. According to these reports, the French have at least one drone operations centre near Ras Lanuf. The drones are reportedly targeting positions occupied by forces loyal to the Tripoli government. In the past, there have been reports of French weapons found after positions were abandoned by Haftar’s forces. The French government denies backing the Libyan general.