Colombians join the war in Yemen

Satellite image of the Colombian training camp in the UAE

The Saudi-led aerial bombardment of Yemen entered its eighth month on Monday – an occasion marked by a series of strikes that almost completely destroyed a hospital in Saada province supported by Médecins Sans Frontières.

Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini troops are also known to be fighting on the ground. The numbers are unclear and they are thought to be supported by troops from other countries though, again, reliable information is difficult to come by. Egyptians, Senegalese, Mauritanians and Sudanese have all been mentioned in this connection and the latest reported addition to the list is a contingent of Colombian mercenaries.

According to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, a group of just under 100 Colombian fighters arrived in Yemen earlier this month to take up "frontline positions" in Aden, and their number may eventually be expanded to 800.

The Colombia Reports website says they will operate "under the service" of the Emirati armed forces but wear Saudi uniforms. It adds that in return for a three-month tour of duty in Yemen they are being paid a bonus of $1,000 a week on top of their salaries and those who survive will be granted instant Emirati citizenship.

The Colombians are believed to be part of a "foreign legion" which the UAE began assembling in 2011 – long before the Yemen war – with assistance from Erik Prince, an American billionaire who was formerly head of Blackwater, the controversial security firm. The force, which was the subject of a lengthy investigative article published by the New York Times in 2011, was assembled in great secrecy, with the soldiers pretending to be construction workers. It is not regarded as part of the Emirati military but answers to Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

According to the NYT article, the Colombians were originally intended "to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts ... Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in their crowded labour camps or were challenged by pro-democracy protests".

It seems Colombians were chosen because they could be hired cheaply, had experience fighting the FARC guerrillas, and were not Muslims. Prince reportedly insisted on recruiting non-Muslims in the belief that Muslim soldiers "could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims".

Needless to say, the Colombian government was far from happy about having what it claimed were its best-trained soldiers being enticed off to the Emirates and in 2013 it made a formal complaint. UPI reported:

Colombian officials estimate 500 soldiers, including pilots of Black Hawk helicopters widely used in special operations, have gone to join Prince's force, where they earn $3,000 a month against $600 back home.

Bogota has complained to Abu Dhabi to stop hiring its best soldiers, so far without any apparent result.

"These are soldiers with a lot of experience, and it took a great effort to train them," Jorge Bedoya, Colombia's deputy defence minister, told The Financial Times.

However, the Emiratis had a different view of the quality of their Colombian recruits, at least in the early stages, according to the New York Times:

The Emirates wanted the troops to be ready to deploy just weeks after stepping off the plane, but it quickly became clear that the Colombians’ military skills fell far below expectations. “Some of these kids couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” said a former employee. Other recruits admitted to never having fired a weapon.

As a result, the veteran American and foreign [German, British and French] commandos training the battalion have had to rethink their roles. They had planned to act only as “advisers” during missions – meaning they would not fire weapons – but over time, they realised that they would have to fight side by side with their troops, former officials said.

Making matters worse, according to the report, the recruitment pipeline began drying up and some of the Colombians were dismissed "for drug use or poor conduct". As a result, the force was then supplemented with (white) South African mercenaries.

Of course, things may have changed since the New York Times investigation four years ago but this does raise the interesting question of how many among the "Colombian" contingent in Yemen are actually Colombian.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 28 October 2015