LONDON - Mercenaries no more, the successors to the dogs of war who rampaged across post colonial Africa now call themselves private military companies and focus on postwar reconstruction, mine clearance and humanitarian aid.
The infamous private armies of the likes of "Mad Mike" Hoare, "Black Jacques" Schramme and Bob Denard are long gone.
Missions like Hoare's failed 1981 take over of the Seychelles and Tim Spicer's abortive 1997 coup in Papua New Guinea are epitaphs to the post World War II era of anarchy.
In their place are private military companies (PMCs), staffed by former special forces and front-line soldiers who find no call for their services in the civilian world but dislike the term mercenaries.
"We are not mercenaries. Northbridge is a legitimate private military company that only works for democratically elected national governments or recognized agencies," said Andrew Williams of the Anglo-American company Northbridge Services Group.
"Our people are contracted to us, not directly to any government or other organization. We have been approached for other work but rejected it because it was illegal," he said in an interview.
Northbridge was formed barely two years ago by Williams, a former British paratrooper who fought in the Falklands War and has been involved in operations from the Middle East to Latin America.
For a range of reasons governments across the globe are reducing the size of their standing armies without losing the desire to get involved in occasional muscular diplomacy.
PRIVATE MILITARY MUSCLE FOR HIRE
"Take Afghanistan, the Balkans and now Iraq," Williams said. "National armed forces are over-stretched. We can offer legitimate governments the flexibility and breathing space they need for peacekeeping operations.
"Working with the Americans we can put a brigade on the ground fully equipped and with full logistical support anywhere in the world within three weeks," he added.
A brigade typically numbers 5,000 soldiers.
Northbridge has 3,000 fully vetted British ex-servicemen on its books, with more from its U.S. office.
An industry insider with years of experience in the world of private military companies said they had no role in high intensity conflicts but vast potential in low intensity wars and postwar clean-up operations.
"There has been a lot of interest in helping sort out the Congo conflict. A proposal was made just over a year ago to put together a force of 1,000 men -- a battalion. They could be very effective," he told Reuters on condition on anonymity.
Attitudes to PMCs differed widely from country to country, he said, with the United States actively promoting them at one end of the scale to the British government's fear of them at the other.
Northbridge's Williams has several contracts in West Africa and is negotiating with the governments of Ivory Coast and Liberia among others.
He is shortly to send a demining team to Angola to work for an international oil company, sweeping the ground through the mine-strewn countryside ahead of seismic search crews.
No stranger to controversy, Northbridge this month flew two planeloads of former special servicemen from an undisclosed British airfield to a secret location on a contract to rescue foreign workers held hostage on Nigerian oil rigs.
The mission was aborted as the hostages were released without a shot fired.
"We brought in a representative of the hostage takers and showed him the guys and their equipment waiting to go in. He got the message," Williams said.
ROSY FUTURE AHEAD
While negotiating a large security and stabilization contract with Ivory Coast, Northbridge had a dispute with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw over his assertion that Williams' men were mercenaries.
Williams is still negotiating the contract, but admitted there were political problems with the British government.
"There is a hell of a lot of politics involved in this," he complained.
His talks with the Liberian government, which have only just begun, involve using former combat engineers to repair sanitation and water supply systems ruined by decades of civil war.
Williams said Northbridge had no trouble recruiting highly trained military personnel whose skills were no longer needed in civilian Britain, noting that a rifleman could easily earn $480 a day on a long contract.
He is developing close working ties with MPRI, a U.S. semi-government private military company, and is looking forward to a rosy future.
"The Americans are going to pave the way on this. They fully recognize and endorse the private military company concept," Williams said.
"With MPRI we aim to be the world's dominant force in PMCs. Who knows, two or three years down the line we may go for a stock exchange listing -- not for the money but for the public credibility," he mused.
© Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd