South Africans apparently part of aborted Tripoli assault


Eleven South Africans were reportedly among a group of private military contractors who self-evacuated from war-torn Libya to Malta with some apparently preparing to operate helicopters in the north African country.

This is according to a United Nations report as well as information from Valletta-based Malta Today and is supported by similar reports in The New York Times, The Telegraph and Daily Sabah, a Turkish daily newspaper published out of Istanbul.

According to these reports, the private military contractors, numbering 20, were recruited to fight with forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, the military strongman running a large part of Libya from Benghazi. Over a year ago he mounted an assault on Tripoli, hoping to take the national capital from Government of National Accord (GNA) under the leadership of Prime Minister Fayez Serraj.

The Maltese newspaper names some contractors allegedly recruited for an “all-out assault” on Tripoli in the northern hemisphere summer last year. They include team leader Steven Hodge, a pilot; and pilots Travis Maki of geosciences firm Bridgeporth, Ryan Hogan and Matthew Coughlin. Andrew Furness is identified as a helicopter loadmaster for the mission. Other contractors named are South Africans Sean Baker, a medic; Hendrik Bam, Christian Du Preez, Andre Greyvenstein, Gilliam and Joseph Joubert, Rudi Koekemoer, Quintan Paul, Lucas Schutte and Abel Smit; Britons Michael Allen, David Button, coxswains Sean Callaghan Louw and Andrew Scott Ritchie, a former Royal Marines commando, and Australian Richard Parish.

Hodge is reported as being a former SA Air Force (SAAF) pilot who served in the British military and worked as a private military contractor in Nigeria. All told, eleven South Africans were said to be part of the group. There were also five Britons, a pair of Australians and an American, reportedly also a trained pilot.

The planned assault ended acrimoniously with the contractors opting to board rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) and transit the Mediterranean to Malta where they were arrested and released. This after a fine was paid by the company which chartered the RHIBs.

Insight comes from a New York Times report on what it called the “botched mission.”

“Although short-lived, the mission offers a telling illustration of the melee in Libya, where a war driven by powerful foreign sponsors — principally the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Russia and Egypt — created a lucrative playground for smugglers, arms dealers, mercenaries and other profiteers who flout an international arms embargo with little fear of consequences.

“Libya is a singular magnet for its combination of oil wealth and scrappy standards of combat. With Russian, Syrian, Sudanese, Chadian and now Western mercenaries drawn to the fight, it has the rare distinction of being a mercenary-on-mercenary war — sometimes, in the case of Syrians, with men from the same country fighting each other.

“’It’s a free-for-all,’ said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. ‘Everyone is bringing ever more absurd types of weapons and fighters into Libya, with Syrians on both sides, and nobody is stopping them.’”

The newspaper said UN investigators determined the PMCs would be paid $80 million for their part in aiding Haftar, some media call him a “warlord”, to take the Libyan capital.

Six helicopters (three SA341 Gazelles and three AS332 Super Pumas, sourced in South Africa), apparently earmarked for the Tripoli assault, were reportedly flown to North Africa from Botswana while the personnel arrived in Libya from a staging area in Jordan. The helicopters were to be armed with 7.62mm medium machine guns.

According to Scramble Magazine, the six helicopters were procured from South Africa in June 2019 through two United Arab Emirates companies, transported by flatbed trucks to Botswana and subsequently to Benghazi. The Botswana Gazette on 29 June 2019 posted photos on their Facebook showing the Super Pumas in transit.

“The abortive mercenary expedition last summer was organised and financed by a network of secretive companies in the United Arab Emirates, according to a confidential report submitted to the UN Security Council in February. The companies are controlled or part-owned by Christiaan Durrant, an Australian businessman and former fighter pilot who is a close associate of Erik Prince, America’s most famous mercenary entrepreneur,” the New York Times reported.

None of the reports makes mention of further investigation or the possibility of the private military contractors being charged.