THE head of Sandline, the private military company at the centre of the arms-to-Africa affair, says mercenaries should be regulated by the Government or the United Nations to remove what he calls the "shadow hanging over the business".
In his first full interview, Lt Col Tim Spicer called for an office of mercenary regulation which would vet personnel, approve operations and even send observer teams to act as "referees" and "blow the whistle" on controversial operations. He also gave new details of Sandline's military structure in an effort to dispel what the company claims are myths about its operations.
Col Spicer said: "It is clear that there is a need for regulation in response to public debate. Regulation would help people to have a perception of what we really do and dispel the idea that we are on-the-rampage, out-of-control, gun-slinging undesirables. I don't have any problem with the word mercenary at its Oxford Dictionary definition. What I take issue with is the dogs-of-war connotation that is associated with it."
In hearings before the House of Commons' foreign affairs select committee last week, Sandline was criticised by officials from the Foreign Office as "shady" and Anne Grant, head of the FO's Africa department, said the company needed handling with a "very long spoon".
But Col Spicer and other private military companies say they are "structured organisations with professional and corporate hierarchies" offering a wide range of services, of which "conflict resolution" - helping in combat - is only one.
Col Spicer said: "We cover the full spectrum - training, logistics support, operational support, post-conflict resolution. I don't want to see the operational support part taken out of context of the rest of it." Old-style mercenaries were employed individually, without great cohesion or discipline, he said. But Sandline had a "permanent cadre" of soldiers, trainers and other experts. Like a traditional army, Sandline had its own doctrine and training syllabus, he said. Sandline staff had military ranks.
Col Spicer said that six weeks before the arms-to-Africa affair blew up, Sandline had submitted a paper to the Foreign Office calling for greater regulation, but had not yet received a response. Instead, he said, Sandline was considering setting up its own oversight committee, including a senior retired general, a lawyer and a representative of the media.
But Col Spicer said that regulation would have to be quick and secret in order not to damage effectiveness. He said: "There is a need for transparency but there is also a desire just to be nosy, and, because you're quite an interesting animal, the public thinks it has a right to know about you.
"Objectively, there is nothing wrong with providing military services to people who don't have them in exactly the same way as you get bankers, doctors and construction workers in Third World countries. Of course, we are a commercial organisation. We're not a sort of moral-crusading white legion that goes around the world knocking off the bad guys. But our commercial aspirations are tempered with trying to do it for the right people, and not simply because somebody comes along with a fat cheque."
Private military companies, as they prefer to be called, are eager to present themselves as respectable bodies with a natural niche in the often complicated post-Cold War world order. Col Spicer said: "The end of the Cold War has allowed conflicts long suppressed or manipulated by the superpowers to re-emerge. At the same time, most armies have got smaller and live footage on CNN of United States troops being killed in Somalia has had staggering effects on the willingness of governments to commit to foreign conflicts. We fill the gap."
He admitted that "our clients may not be democratically elected in terms we all understand in the West, but they are supported." No work was done with terrorists, drugs or nuclear, biological and chemical weapons or embargoed regimes, such as Libya and Iraq, he said. He would not be drawn on clients' identities but said that Sandline had rejected an approach by the former Zairean dictator, Joseph Mobutu.
Last week, the Foreign Office revealed that Sandline had been "warned off" supplying arms to the Kosovo Liberation Army. Col Spicer claimed that "huge numbers" of people - 37 last Thursday and Friday alone - approached Sandline asking for jobs. He said: "We reply to every one and they go on a database. But they are very unlikely to get through the filtration system by writing in." He also attacked the Foreign Office's description of him as "not in any way fair".
Those sceptical of the new model mercenaries say that their continuing desire for secrecy indicates that not all their activities would stand up to scrutiny. Continuing questions about Sandline's links with the British Government or lucrative mineral concessions were deflected by Col Spicer.
4 November 1998: Arms-to-Africa envoy stands by his decision
15 June 1998: Red tape to combat soldiers of fortune
20 May 1998: Spicer believed in 'honourable Whitehall staff'
14 May 1998: [International] US says Sandline experts helped to overthrow rebels
8 May 1998: Diamonds, diplomacy and dogs of war