Report: U.S. Mercenary’s Work in Azerbaijan Triggered 2016 Probe

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Erik Prince (center) in April 2015. Image courtesy of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia

by Emil Sanamyan

A prominent caterer of military services was investigated because his work with Azerbaijan may have violated U.S. law, according to the report by Jeremy Scahill and Matthew Cole published in The Intercept on March 19. Erik Prince, best known as the founder of Blackwater, was reportedly the subject of a due diligence investigation by his company the Frontier Services Group (FSG).

In February 2016, Chris Wray of the law firm King & Spalding, who led the investigation, “informed the Justice Department that Prince had likely violated U.S. law” because he offered weapons systems and services to Azerbaijan’s ministry of defense. The U.S. government is known to restrict military sales and other forms of military cooperation with Azerbaijan. Wray has since been appointed the FBI director. Robert Hur, who was part of Wray’s probe, is now a senior Justice Department official.

“Any assertion that FSG or Mr. Prince violated any laws in this matter is categorically false,” a spokesperson for FSG told the Intercept on behalf of the company and Prince. Previous FSG CEO Greg Smith, who authorized the investigation into Prince’s activities, was forced out of the company in May 2016.

Blackwater came to prominence during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In the mid-2000s, the company secured a Pentagon contract to train Azerbaijan’s naval special forces unit that U.S. officials said was intended to protect the country’s oil infrastructure and, as demanded by U.S. law, would not “undermine or hamper ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan or be used for offensive purposes against Armenia.” Nevertheless, the Blackwater-trained unit is known to have lost at least one of its servicemen in the April 2016 fighting against Armenian forces in Karabakh.

Azerbaijani naval personnel at the funeral of Rusif Agayev in April 2016. Youtube image grab

Research by the Focus on Karabakh found another mercenary company recently involved in Azerbaijan: Special Solution owned by Jens Schlegel, who according to his Linked profile was a manager for FSG in 2014-15. The company reported on its web site some time in January 2016 about its contract with Azerbaijan’s defense ministry to “train Azerbaijan Special Operations Forces in the latest counter-terrorism, special operations and irregular warfare tactics, weapons techniques and procedures.” These special forces are known to have suffered heavy casualties in April 2016 as they attacked Armenian frontline posts. Among those killed there were senior officers who had earlier received training in the United States.

Some of these Azerbaijani special forces units are believed to have been involved in war crimes, such as execution of civilians and mutilation of their bodies, as well as the bodies of Armenian soldiers. U.S. law prohibits assistance to units engaged in such practices.

Retired U.S. special forces personnel, including some involved in the Iran-Contras scandal, also trained Azerbaijani armed forces in the early 1990s, American and British media reported at the time.

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