Mercenary approach

  • 9 August 2006
  • test

Former British army officer Tim Spicer justified the murder of an 18-year-old man in Belfast in 1992 by advising the army to reinstate the soldiers who killed him. Now he is running a controversial private security firm in Iraq which has been accused of shooting unarmed civilians. Eamon McCann reports

The mother of a teenager shot dead by British soldiers in Belfast has launched a campaign for an inquiry into the alleged killing of civilians by private consultants in Iraq. Jean McBride's 18-year-old son, Peter McBride, was shot dead by members of the Scots Guards regiment in the New Lodge Road area in September 1992. The men's commander, Lt Col Tim Spicer, now heads the company at the centre of the Iraq allegations.

In June, the Pentagon announced that an inquiry had cleared Spicer's company, Aegis Defence Services, of shooting-up civilian vehicles in Baghdad. However, a former British paratrooper working for Aegis at the time says the inquiry was a whitewash. He claims that, although he had witnessed the shooting and possessed video-tape of it, his repeated offers of evidence were refused.

Now, Jean McBride has written to a UN working group asking for a new investigation. The former para who worked for Aegis, Rod Stoner, says that he will testify to any new inquiry.

UK-based Aegis is the largest private security company (PSC) operating in Iraq. Stoner resigned from the PSC last year following a dispute over an Aegis employees' website that Spicer claimed was damaging the company. In an email to Spicer at the time, Stoner denied that he intended to post videos "showing innocent Iraqis being shot up and in some cases killed". However, he posted the video on the website when he left.

Stoner says he was the "team leader" in the SUV from which the shooting took place.

The video contains four clips in which automatic fire is directed at civilian cars travelling behind the SUV. One clip shows a white car apparently drifting out of control and then coming to a stop as it is raked with machine-gun fire. Another shows bullets splattering the bonnet and windshield of a Mercedes which crashes into another car. A number of people are seen running from the other car: no one emerges from the Mercedes. The video is shot from inside the SUV as it travels along 'Route Irish' between Baghdad airport and the city.

The Derry-based human rights group the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) learned of the Pentagon inquiry in May from Mitchell Reiss, the US special envoy on the North. PFC director Paul O'Connor and Jean McBride had met with Reiss in Belfast to protest against the Pentagon's employment of Spicer's company.

"I told the ambassador that his government would not take kindly to the Irish or British governments doing business with someone who justified the murder of a US citizen, and that I didn't take kindly to the US government doing business with someone who has justified the shooting, in the back, of my unarmed 18-year-old son. When we then brought up the Iraq video, Reiss told us there was a Pentagon investigation into it already under way."

The video had been shown on More4 News on 30 March 2006. The More4 bulletin included an interview with Stoner. In the High Court in London on 6 April, Aegis got an injunction compelling Stoner to take down the website.

Following coverage of the PFC's meeting with Reiss the next month, Stoner contacted the Derry group saying he had made "repeated requests [to Aegis] to be put in contact with those within the Pentagon responsible for the investigation" but had had no response. He said he believed none of the other occupants of the SUV had been interviewed, either.

On 1 June, the PFC emailed Reiss: "This man has informed us that he is a former Aegis employee, Rod Stoner. He has informed us that he was present in the vehicle when the shooting occurred and that he was responsible for posting it on the website. Stoner has informed us that it is his understanding that none of those present in the vehicle have been contacted by the Pentagon, or indeed by any official investigating the video." Stoner was available to give evidence, the PFC added. The email was copied to the Inspector General of the US Army, Lt Gen Stanley Green.

On 9 June, Margaret Baines from Green's office acknowledged receipt of the email. In Baghdad the following day the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of Green's department announced its inquiry was complete and had not found "any potential criminality that falls within CID's investigative purview... No further investigative effort ... was warranted."

Aegis issued a statement in London on 11 June welcoming the verdict and referring to its own, earlier investigation which, it said, concluded that "the films were recorded during Aegis's legitimate operations... and the incidents recorded were within the rules for the use of force". Aegis had not previously published these findings but said that it had passed them to the US investigators.

Stoner told the PFC that Aegis "showed no interest" in interviewing him during its investigation and had not interviewed any of his colleagues who were in the SUV.

Jean McBride said last week: "The truth seems to be that there was no inquiry. If you don't interview people who are offering eye-witness evidence, you aren't inquiring."

McBride and the PFC wrote to Armanda Benavides de Perez, Colombian chairwoman of the UN's new Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries (WGUM), asking her to consider whether the issues arising from the Aegis video come within the working group's remit.

"We are not letting go of this," says Jean McBride. "A man who praised the murderers of my son and who has since been involved in very dubious activities around the world is now running an operation for the US in Iraq in which more innocent people are seemingly being gunned down.

"We will be actively seeking support for an inquiry... How can we talk about human rights and the rule of law if people like Tim Spicer are allowed to defend murder in Northern Ireland and then go on to inflict the same attitudes elsewhere?" ?

? More The video can be viewed at – scroll to 'Under the Aegis'

Peter McBride

Eighteen-year-old father-of-two Peter McBride (pictured) was shot in the back by Scots Guardsmen Mark Wright and James Fisher in north Belfast on 4 September 1992. In February 1995, Wright and Fisher were convicted of murder and sentenced to life. The High Court and Court of Appeal in Belfast and the House of Lords upheld the verdicts. They were freed by Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam in September 1998, in advance of releases under the Belfast Agreement.

In November 1998, an army board accepted Wright and Fisher back into the regiment. The men's commander, Col Tim Spicer, told the board he'd arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting and that: "It was my inclination that [the soldiers] should be rearmed, re-zero their weapons and in my view return to the streets." The soldiers, he added, had been "acting entirely in good faith and, in my view, in complete accordance with the Rules of Engagement". Jean McBride has campaigned to expose what she says is retrospective complicity by the British authorities in her son's death. She and the PFC have lobbied the Irish government and parliamentarians in Europe and travelled to the US seeking support from members of Congress.

In December 2000, a motion condemning the return of Wright and Fisher to their regiment was passed unanimously in the Dáil.

In June 2003, Peter McBride's sister, Kelly, stood in a by-election in Brent East, London, to highlight the case. Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather, who won the seat, has since been a vocal supporter of the campaign.

In April 2005, Teather and London Mayor Ken Livingstone were among politicians who condemned the award of Iraq contracts to Aegis, citing Spicer's role in the McBride killing.

Tim Spicer

After leaving the British Army in 1994, Tim Spicer, with former Scots Guards colleague Simon Mann and others, set up Executive Outcomes (EO), providing security for business and government interests. EO won contracts in countries including Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Sierra Leone.

In October 1996, Spicer and Mann established Sandline International. SI was hired the following year by the government of Papua New Guinea to suppress a revolt on Bougainville, site of the world's largest copper mine. But the revolt spread, the government fell and Spicer was briefly jailed. Backed by the British government, SI collected an $18m fee from the new government.

In 1998, Sandline organised an arms shipment to Sierra Leone in defiance of a UN embargo. It later emerged that British and US officials had secretly given Sandline the go-ahead.

In September 2004, Mann was sentenced to seven years in prison in Zimbabwe for attempting to buy arms to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea.

In the meantime, Spicer had, in 2002, founded Aegis Defence Services. The company won a number of contracts in Iraq following the April 2003 occupation. In May 2004, the US Army gave Aegis a $293m contract to coordinate all private security company operations in Iraq: this followed the lynching of four US contractors who had strayed into Fallujah. Last year, Aegis was hired by the UN to provide security during the October referendum and December elections. Aegis's current Iraqi contracts total more than $400m. Spicer stepped down late last year as Aegis chairman, but remains CEO and owns 40 per cent of the company. Last year's UN contracts significantly boosted Aegis's standing, and may have helped attract new board members. These include leading British figures and Robert McFarlane, advisor to the government of Vladimir Putin.