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Erik Prince, Trump Ally, Denies Role in Libya Mercenary Operation

NAIROBI, Kenya — Responding to accusations by United Nations investigators that he violated an international arms embargo, Erik Prince, the Blackwater Worldwide founder and prominent supporter of Donald J. Trump, denied playing any role in an $80 million mercenary operation in Libya in 2019. And he insisted that key findings of the U.N. investigation were entirely wrong.

“Erik Prince didn’t breach any arms embargo and had nothing to do with sending aircraft, drones, arms or people to Libya — period,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.

A confidential report submitted Thursday to the U.N. Security Council and obtained by The Times accused Mr. Prince of breaching the decade-old arms embargo on Libya by taking part in an ill-fated mercenary operation in 2019 that sought to support a powerful Libyan commander in his drive to overthrow Libya’s internationally backed government.

Mr. Prince, who came under international scrutiny after his Blackwater contractors massacred 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, has been a prominent supporter of Mr. Trump in recent years. His sister, Betsy DeVos, was Mr. Trump’s education secretary.

Speaking by phone, Mr. Prince challenged key assertions in the U.N. report, lashed out at critics and played down his links to the former president. He said he met Mr. Trump just once as president, at a Veterans Day event, and never discussed Libya or any other policy matter with him.

“I was not foreign policy adviser for the president,” he added, apparently in reference to news media articles using that description. “So stop characterizing me as that. It’s not true.”

Mr. Prince and his lawyer acknowledged they had not seen the U.N. report, or the many specific allegations listed in it, which includes dozens of pages of PowerPoint presentations, contracts, bank transfers, text messages and other evidence. And Mr. Prince did not offer any hard proof to counter those allegations.

Gregg Smith, who worked with Mr. Prince between 2014 and 2016 and is cited in the report, said the mercenary operation described by investigators in Libya had many similarities to a project Mr. Prince headed in South Sudan in 2014.

“It’s the same people and the same aircraft,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Prince’s broad denials increase the stakes over the confidential report, which is currently before the Security Council and is likely to be made public next month. The report opens the possibility that Mr. Prince could be punished with an asset freeze and a travel ban, although such sanctions are rarely imposed by the United Nations.

A central accusation of the report is that Mr. Prince pitched the $80 million mercenary scheme to the Libyan militia commander Khalifa Hifter during a meeting in Cairo in April 2019, only days after Mr. Hifter launched a sweeping military drive to seize Libya’s capital, Tripoli.

Mr. Prince insisted that was impossible. “I never met General Hifter,” he said. “Was not in Egypt in 2019. Never even spoken to the man.”

The report said the meeting coincided with an abrupt change in the Trump administration’s approach to Libya.

A day after the meeting described in the report, on April 15, Mr. Trump made a phone call to Mr. Hifter and publicly recognized his “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,” the White House said in a statement at the time.

Four days later, Mr. Trump surprised his aides by openly endorsing Mr. Hifter’s advance on Tripoli, in what amounted to a drastic reversal in American policy toward Libya. Before that, the United States supported the government that Mr. Hifter was trying to topple.

Mr. Prince says he tried to influence the president only through newspaper articles, where in 2017 in The Financial Times he proposed a private border force to stem illegal migration from Libya and in The Wall Street Journal suggested a force of private contractors to fight in Afghanistan. “I wish he had listened,” Mr. Prince said. “I wish he had listened to the advice I gave him in the articles.”

Mr. Prince also said he had never discussed Libya with two other figures close to Mr. Trump: Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law and adviser, and Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state.

The mercenary operation linked to Mr. Prince by the U.N. report is just the latest episode to highlight the role of foreign forces in the sprawling, chaotic war that engulfed Libya after its longtime dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, was ousted during the Arab Spring in 2011.

The United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Russia, Egypt and other countries have taken sides in the struggle, sending money, fighters and powerful weapons in seeking to influence the future of the oil-rich North African nation.

Mr. Hifter, who holds sway over most of eastern Libya, is probably the country’s most powerful commander. He faced scathing international criticism in April 2019 when he began his campaign to capture Tripoli with backing from the Emirates and, later, from Russian mercenaries.

U.N. investigators say that a team of 20 British, Australian, South African and American mercenaries were secretly deployed to Libya in June 2019 as part of the $80 million scheme to help Mr. Hifter, then in his campaign to capture Tripoli.

The mercenaries arrived with aircraft and military boats smuggled from South Africa and Europe, and offered to form a hit squad to locate and assassinate Mr. Hifter’s main enemy commander, the report said.

But the operation hit an obstacle when Jordan refused to sell American-made Cobra helicopter gunships to the mercenaries, then it turned to disaster when a dispute with Mr. Hifter forced the mercenaries to flee Libya by boat across the Mediterranean.

At that time, Mr. Prince says, he was in the mountains of Wyoming and later on a road trip to Alaska and Canada with his son.

“It’s hard to run a mercenary operation from the backcountry of northern Yukon Territory,” he said.

The U.N. report says that Mr. Prince transferred three of his own airplanes to Libya for the use of Mr. Hifter’s war campaign.

Investigators say a paper trail led them from Prince-controlled companies in Bermuda, Bulgaria and United States that owned the airplanes to the Libyan battlefield.

Mr. Prince stumbled in his explanation of his companies. Mr. Prince’s lawyer contradicted him when Mr. Prince said he was the owner of Bridgeporth, a British survey company the U.N. investigators said was used to provide cover for Mr. Prince’s military ventures.

He does not know or care who ultimately bought the planes that ended up in Libya, he said.

And he said he refused to cooperate with the United Nations investigators — a group of six people knowledgeable about illicit arms and financial transfers formally known as the Panel of Experts — because he believed they were intent on smearing him. “There’s no due process,” he said. “It’s a hatchet job.”

A Western official said that U.N. investigators had already formally recommended sanctions against a friend and former business partner of Mr. Prince for his part in the mercenary scheme.

Now Mr. Prince, facing a battle for his reputation, at the least, at the United Nations, said he was a victim of a shadowy and secretive image that he himself has long cultivated.

“My name has become click bait for people who like to weave conspiracy theories together,” Mr. Prince said. “And if they throw my name in, it always attracts attention. And it’s pretty damn sickening.”

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