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UK firm lobbies Hague over Libya security deal

NTC says Heritage Oil offer "unacceptable". Company’s go-between claims inside track with new oil figure

A UK oil firm with links to the private-security sector is seeking a contract from Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) to provide security at oil installations and has been lobbying the UK’s foreign secretary for support, Petroleum Economist has learnt.

The NTC has so far rebuffed the firm’s offer and insists no foreign or private troops must help it secure the country.

Heritage Oil’s efforts to enlist the support of foreign secretary William Hague emerge in correspondence shown to Petroleum Economist by a Libyan source. In it, a man called Christian Sweeting, who said he was promoting Heritage’s interests in Libya, asked Hague to help expedite UK visas for four Libyans and advised the foreign secretary on developments in the rebel-held east.

Heritage, an independent producer listed in London and Toronto, has had a presence in eastern Libya since as early as April this year, according to the correspondence.

Petroleum Economist understands Sweeting travelled throughout rebel-held territory that month accompanied by John Holmes, a retired officer from the UK’s elite special forces division, the SAS. Holmes is now a leading figure in the UK's private-security sector. Sweeting compiled a personal report of his visit and sent it to Hague.

Hague and Sweeting also met in March at an event in the Carlton Club, an elite members-only gentlemen’s club in London, the foreign office has confirmed. They later exchanged letters about Heritage and Libya.

Heritage, which has assets in Iraq, Pakistan and Democratic Republic of Congo, among other locations, is headed by chief executive Tony Buckingham, a former SAS officer. Buckingham was also closely connected with Sandline International, a controversial private-security company that shut down in 2004, and Executive Outcomes, another security firm. Both companies were involved in military conflicts in Africa.

Holmes was a director of Erinys International, a private-security firm that was heavily involved in post-war Iraq and continues to provide security services to oil and gas companies. He also founded another security company, Titon International.

Despite Sweeting’s efforts to garner support from the UK government, the NTC turned down Heritage’s pitch to provide a security force. The offer was “not acceptable”, Nuri Berruien, the new chairman of Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC), said in an interview with Petroleum Economist.

Heritage was welcome to bid for other business, Berruien added. But Libyan oil security would be provided by Libyans, he said, echoing comments from other NTC leaders.

Libya’s NTC has insisted for months that it will not hire private-security operators, part of an effort to avoid the chaotic violence that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003.

Ships passing in the night

In a letter sent on 10 May, Sweeting wrote to foreign secretary Hague asking him to expedite visas for Libyan contacts the company wanted to bring to London. He talked of meeting Hague in the Carlton Club, and regretted missing him during a visit to Cairo 100 days earlier, where, he said, the two of them had been “ships passing in the night”.

Sweeting stood unsuccessfully for election to the UK’s parliament as a Conservative in 2001, when Hague offered support for his candidacy.

A foreign office official confirmed the men had met at an event at the Carlton Club, and in a statement released to Petroleum Economist acknowledged that the men had exchanged correspondence. But Hague's dealings with Sweeting had been "entirely proper", the foreign office said.

It is understood that the foreign office refused the request to expedite the visas. It is also understood that although Sweeting provided on-the-ground intelligence to the foreign office, the ministry made no effort to support the firm’s business interests in Libya.

In a letter to Hague, Sweeting wrote: “Those nations [and by association individuals and companies] that have not been supportive of the revolution and who have been corruptly close to Gaddafi in the past will not be awarded contracts in the future of Libya. The UK should capitalise on this. Heritage is untainted by any previous association with the regime.”

Sweeting asked for swift approval for visas for four contacts in the rebel movement – Muhammed El Alagi, minister for the interior and justice; Judge Khamal El Houni, a liaison between the NTC and the military; Ahmed El Kawafi, chief of staff to El Houni; and Akram El Kawafi, the delegation’s interpreter. The men would visit the UK as guests of Heritage, Sweeting said.

On 28 August, Sweeting said he had visited infrastructure in Brega “to assess the extent of war damage”. Two holding tanks had been destroyed and two damaged, he reported to Hague. He said the Brega visit was at the NTC's invitation.

Sweeting also claimed to have established an inside track to senior decision makers in the NTC, sidestepping Ali Tarhouni, the finance minister with interim authority over oil matters, and NOC’s Berruien.

Sweeting described one contact, Mustafa El Houni, as the NTC’s new “vice president” with “overriding responsibility over the portfolios of oil and the economy”. Sweeting said El Houni was “above the authority of Tarhouni and reported directly to [NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul] Jalil and the NTC.”

“We are expecting to meet Dr El Houni again this evening to finalise details of our proposal,” he wrote on 28 August.

There is mounting disquiet among some senior Libyan oil figures, as well as in Western diplomatic circles, about El Houni’s rapid rise within the NTC. Some senior NTC sources contacted by Petroleum Economist dismissed as fantasy notions that Mustafa El Houni holds any kind of elevated authority in the council. Speculation that he may become the new oil minister is wrong, one source said.

For now, Berruien said Mustafa El Houni was an advisor to the NTC.

Another source said he had previously worked for Brega International, an NOC oil-trading unit, although Petroleum Economist has been unable to confirm this.

A spokesman for Heritage contacted by Petroleum Economist said the company would not comment on its role in Libya. Sweeting did not return Petroleum Economist’s requests for comment.

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