Afghanistan shuts down private security firms

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Sunday, 3 October 2010 03:03 GMT

* Eight foreign and local companies in first batch

* List includes Xe, formerly known as Blackwater

* Karzai decree in August ordered firms to disband

(Adds details and quotes from Karzai spokesman)

By Sayed Salahuddin and Jonathon Burch

KABUL, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Afghanistan said on Sunday it had begun disbanding private security companies and confiscating their weapons, starting with a group of eight Afghan and foreign firms.

President Hamid Karzai issued a decree in August calling for all private security companies to disband within four months, part of an ambitious plan for the government to take over all security responsibilities from 2014.

Karzai has been critical of the firms, saying they had been responsible for horrific accidents. Many Afghans see them as operating with impunity, and they have been accused of a series of killings, crimes and scandals but have rarely been convicted.

On Sunday, Karzai&${esc.hash}39;s spokesman Waheed Omer said the government had begun shutting down eight Afghan and foreign companies.

"The minister of interior today, in the national security meeting, announced the disbandment of eight private security firms. The process of dissolving and disbanding ... is very well under way," Omer told a news conference.

Omer said only operations involving the training of Afghan security forces or protecting the premises of international organisations would be allowed to continue after announcing the names of some of the first batch of firms affected.

The companies compete for contracts worth billions of dollars and employ up to 40,000 armed guards, mostly Afghans but including many foreigners.

Some train Afghan security forces and are also used to guard convoys, embassies and other mainly Western interests.

"We would like to be able at some point to provide security for embassies and international organisations and we would like to be in a position where we would no longer need security companies to train our national security forces," Omer said.

"But until that happens, that&${esc.hash}39;s not going to be in the focus of this programme."

WEAPONS SEIZED

Among the eight companies affected initially was U.S. firm Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater, Omer said. Xe could not immediately be reached for comment.

Blackwater&${esc.hash}39;s reputation in Iraq suffered mainly over an incident in 2007 when its security guards were involved in a shooting in which 14 civilians were killed.

Blackwater has since changed its name to Xe and has several contracts in Afghanistan.

In January, two U.S. security guards working for Paravant LLC, part of Xe, were arrested in Afghanistan accused of murdering two Afghans in Kabul and wounding a third.

At least two other international firms -- White Eagle Security Services and Four Horsemen International -- were also among the first group of companies, Omer said.

At a separate news conference, Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said more than 400 weapons had been seized and the government had already closed down an Afghan security firm with 75 employees, as well as several smaller groups.

Bashary said he had no estimate of the total number of companies but 52 were registered with the government, half of them foreign.

Karzai&${esc.hash}39;s government tried unsuccessfully last year to register the firms, establish how many weapons they had and where they came from, and how much money the industry was worth, an Afghan security source has said.

When Karzai issued the deadline for the closure of the firms in August, the Pentagon called the deadline "very challenging" but said Washington would work with Kabul and try to improve oversight and management of private security companies. (Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Andrew Dobbie) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: http://www.reuters.com/news/globalcoverage/afghanistanpakistan)

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