Suspected mercenaries were released from arrest after two days

Group of 20 men evacuated from Libya and suspected of having been contracted to support General Khalifa Haftar were held under arrest in Malta for two days and released without charge

One of the RHIBs leased by Sovereign Charters, moored in Malta. The company insists its lawyers carried out due diligence on Opus Capital when it leased out two boats for what turned out to be a 24-hour evacaution of suspected mercenaries from Benghazi
One of the RHIBs leased by Sovereign Charters, moored in Malta. The company insists its lawyers carried out due diligence on Opus Capital when it leased out two boats for what turned out to be a 24-hour evacaution of suspected mercenaries from Benghazi

A group of 20 men evacuated from Benghazi, Libya and suspected of having been contracted to lend support to General Khalifa Haftar’s forces, were held under arrest in Malta  for two days before being released without charge.  

Multiple law enforcement sources speaking to this newspaper say the police are still investigating  the incident, almost a year on since  the arrival of the men on two RHIBs (rigid-hull inflatable boats) at the Valletta seaport in June 2019.  

The men are suspected of having aviation and military backgrounds, yet police sources insisted they carried out a full suite of checks on the suspected mercenaries.  

“The police don’t take things at face value – we are still investigating their claims of being oil and gas workers,” a source said of the  men’s  claims that they were oil and gas personnel working for an Emirati firm, Opus  Capital Asset.  

The RHIBs were leased out to the company by a Maltese firm, Sovereign Charters, whose owner James Fenech is an ammunitions merchant.  In April 2020,  Fenech was charged with leasing out the RHIBs in breach of EU sanctions on Libya  for not having an appropriate export licence.  

MaltaToday  has established that after the men were arrested, Fenech’s company was  fined €15,000 for the  entry into Malta without visas. The group was  mostly composed of South African men, as well as one American and one Australian.  

Fenech has claimed that in June 2019 his lawyers green-lit his decision to lease out the RHIBs to Opus Capital, a company now named  in a United Nations report,  and  suspected of being a front for Abu Dhabi’s operations in Libya to back Haftar’s forces. 

The UN report says Opus  Capital  and military contractors Lancaster 6 DMCC (Dubai-registered) financed and directed an operation to provide Haftar’s forces with helicopters, drones and cyber capabilities through a complex web of shell companies, according to two diplomats who briefed Bloomberg on the contents of the UN Panel of Experts report shared with the Security Council’s sanctions committee in February.  

The mercenaries travelled to Libya in June 2019 for a “well-funded private military company operation” to support Haftar, who is fighting to dislodge the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord. 

MaltaToday  obtained a list of a names that took part in the mission, showing there was clear military backgrounds to various men in the operation.  

The boats were driven out of Malta by coxswains Sean Callaghan  Louw  and Andrew Scott Ritchie, a former Royal Marine commando - both UK nationals. 

The team was led by  South African national  Steven John Lodge.  

Other names are those of  American national  Travis Alden Maki, a pilot-in-command for flight operations in frontier locations in African and the Middle East.  Maki is  vice-president aviation for UK specialist geosciences firm Bridgeporth.  

Another former South African National Defence Force special forces name is that of Rudi  Koekemoer.  

In total there were five UK nationals, one American, one Australian, and 12 South African nationals.  

MaltaToday also has information that a Maltese police officer was requested to take the men’s flight helmets upon arrival in Malta.

The officer has refused to confirm or deny with MaltaToday whether he did this while off-duty at the behest of third parties representing the mercenaries. Law enforcement sources claim there were no flight helmets when they arrested the men.  

Lancaster 6 is run by Christiaan Durrant,  a one-time Malta resident  and  former Australian fighter pilot who was once an associate of  Blackwater owner Erik Prince.  In 2017, both  Durrant  and Prince were registered in one of the crews competing for the Rolex Middle Sea Race, records held by the Royal Malta Yacht Club show.  

Their yacht’s sail carried the familiar trademark logo of Blackwater, the defunct private military company run by Prince.  

Durrant opened a Malta subsidiary of Lancaster 6, and its company secretary was Amanda Perry, a British national based in Dubai who heads Opus Capital Asset. 

A letter to Bloomberg from Vince Gordon, the lawyer representing Lodge,  Durrant  and Perry in the matter, has disputed the accusations in the UN report, quoting  Durrant  as saying: “allegations about the unlawful activity of Opus and Lancaster 6 in Libya are simply not factual and spread based on a patchwork of half-truths.”  

The letter said that they had cooperated with the UN investigation and offered to meet the panel several times. “Our clients intend to vigorously defend themselves and their directors and employees against false and misleading allegations.”  

In Malta James Fenech has denied having any links with either Durrant  or Prince.   

Through his company PBM Limited (Precision Ballistic Manufacturing), Fenech has  a branding agreement  for the  Blackwater  Ammunition  trademark. Fenech insists he has no form of “dealings” with Prince even though  PBM – which has an Italian manufacturing base – has an exclusive deal with Prince’s brand  for its products.  

Fenech says Opus Capital engaged Maltese lawyers to assist in immigration procedures. While the evacuation occurred within 24 hours of the departure of the RHIBs from Malta, Fenech says his company was not involved. “The authorities were notified prior to the evacuees’ arrival. Our vessel was with held by the llocal authorities for a number of days and was released from where it was docked  at  Valletta Waterfront.” 

UN investigators said in the report they were unable to determine why the team pulled out, but that the explanation provided by their lawyers – that they were providing services related to oil and gas – was not convincing.  

Although fined by police over immigration irregularities, Fenech insists this was done erroneously since  the men were employees of Opus. “We had provided all the documentation of the transaction  [the lease]  including contracts and all that was requested last July. I was never questioned prior  to the 22 April this year.”