A Maltese arms dealer has told the UN security council that he did not know his military-grade vessels were to be used by private military contractors in violation of sanctions on Libya. 

But James Fenech’s claims lacked credibility and he was found to be in ‘technical noncompliance’ with the UN’s arms embargo on the war-torn North African country, according to a new security council report.

His charter company supplied two boats that evacuated a team of private military operatives from Benghazi to Valletta in 2019 after they were threatened by Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, the report states.

Fenech and four others are also facing criminal charges in Malta, where he is accused of circumventing EU sanctions by supplying the rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIB) to Libya.

The UN security council report, published in March, gives details of the operation carried out in the middle of a civil war as Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) was attempting to seize power.

Project Opus

It detailed how, in June 2019, an expert panel on Libya identified a well-funded private military company operation, named “Project Opus”.

The operation, the report reads, was designed to provide the LNA with a raft of military support including armed assault aviation, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.

It also included a component to “kidnap or terminate” individuals regarded as high-value targets in Libya, the report reads.

According to the report, some of the air and sea assault elements of the operation were mounted from Amman, in Jordan, and Valletta in June 2019.

But the report says that, towards the end of the month, a decision was made to evacuate a team of 20 military operatives because Haftar was unimpressed with the aircraft procured for the operations and made threats against the team.

Fenech’s two special forces specification RHIB boats were used for the 350 nautical mile voyage from Benghazi to Valletta.

According to the report, Fenech informed the UN that he was told the two vessels he supplied were going to be used to evacuate oil and gas workers.

‘Probably unaware’

However, the UN’s expert panel cast doubts on this explanation.

“Considering James Fenech’s known close linkages to private military companies through the auspices of his other business, and his knowing the individuals and organisations involved in the charter of the vessels, the panel considers it unlikely that he found this to be a credible explanation,” the report reads. 

The report concludes that Fenech had not abided by the UN resolution on the provision and transfer of military equipment to a private military company supporting an armed group in Libya.

It also emphasised that Fenech had cooperated fully with the panel and acceded readily to all information requests during the investigation.

“The panel considers that James Fenech was probably unaware that the transfer of an unarmed vessel, albeit to military specifications, would be a noncompliance of the sanction measures,” the report reads.

The technical non-compliance Fenech was slapped with is deemed a lesser transgression than a deliberate violation.

The story all started when a mysterious Malta-registered boat was found in the harbour of Zuwetina, Libya, some 150 kilometres south of Benghazi.

The incident had raised suspicion that the boat was being used to sneak people in and out of the country, prompting the Libyan authorities to launch an investigation.

At the time, Libyan news sites had wrongly reported that the boat belonged to the Armed Forces of Malta while some sections of the Libya press had speculated that it could have been used to ferry special forces or intelligence teams into the region. 

The story escalated when the vessel was found to be registered to Fenech’s company, Sovereign Charters.

Fenech’s Fieldsports Ltd is an arms dealing company that supplies military and tactical equipment to the highest bidder. 

The company had once partnered with infamous former US private militia operator Erik Prince in a venture that was reportedly set to produce and sell ammunition. 

A 2007 report by the European Parliament had found that Malta had, at the time, been the operational base for Prince’s private militia company, formerly known as Blackwater. 

Prince is himself no stranger to controversy.

According to Politico, the US Justice Department is currently reviewing allegations that Prince had misled Congress during its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election in the US.

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