story of the arrests of alleged mercenaries in Zimbabwe and
Equatorial Guinea raises the question of paying trained operatives
to intervene in African disputes.
Mercenaries have been accused of fuelling wars
Since the start of the era of independence in the 1960s, former
soldiers have been hired by foreign governments, rebel movements or
even commercial companies to carry out operations that no-one else
is capable of performing.
Despite efforts by African governments to stamp out the practice,
there seems to be no shortage of men prepared to use their training
on behalf of anyone willing to pay the right price.
South African role
The end of apartheid 10 years ago meant a large number of well
trained personnel were suddenly on the market, as many whites left
the South African army.
There were also
a large number of black troops, who had been used by Pretoria down
the years to conduct covert operations in Angola, Zambia and further
Many belonged to the "32 battalion" - as they were known.
Two years ago South Africa was investigating the use of its
citizens in Sudan. Then there were reports of South Africans
fighting for diamond companies in Sierra Leone.
And then they were flying helicopters in Ivory Coast.
The South African government has expressed its embarrassment over
reports that South African mercenaries had been arrested in
Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe.
Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told reporters it was
disturbing to hear that "every time" the world dealt with
mercenaries, in Africa in particular, South Africans were among
"We definitely do not like the idea that South Africa is a pool
for mercenaries," she said.
But South Africa is by no means the only source for mercenaries.
Others have come from European or US specialist units.
In recent years the major development in freelance fighting for
profit has been the appearance of private military companies which
offer their services to governments and to commercial companies.
The best known of these was Executive Outcomes (EO) - initially
based in South Africa and involved in Angola and Sierra Leone.
In Angola, EO
employed former South African soldiers and was paid by the Angolan
state oil company, Sonangol, to assist the Angolan army in regaining
control of the Soyo oilfields from Unita rebels.
It is estimated that EO was paid $40m for its services.
The same company was later involved in supporting the Sierra
Leone Government in its attempts to defeat rebels.
The British-based company Sandline also helped Sierra Leone fight
the Revolutionary United Front rebels.
Michael Grunberg, a commercial adviser for Sandline, told BBC
News Online that private military companies like Sandline see
themselves as different from the old image of mercenaries.
"We are established entities, have established sets of principles
and employ professional people."
He said Sandline operated as a commercial company and wanted to
have a reputation that would enhance its business position.
He emphasised that it would not accept contracts from groups or
governments that would risk damaging its commercial reputation.
The old guard
But despite this new image, old-style mercenaries have not
disappeared and the depressing cycle of wars in the continent means
that there are plenty of places for them to fight and new wars that
produce new generations of hired guns.
accused of atrocities, of fuelling conflicts and of being beyond
A UK company was warned against sending
mercenaries to Ivory Coast
One military source who wanted to remain anonymous, told BBC News
Online that mercenaries were still very active and could command
$10-20,000 a month for their services.
In April 2003, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned a UK
company against recruiting mercenaries to work in Ivory Coast.
He said he was gravely concerned at reports that Northbridge
Services Group - a security company - was recruiting ex-servicemen
from Britain, South Africa and France.
The company denied that it was involved in such activities.
The BBC's Martin Plaut and Keith Somerville contributed to