* Gaddafi using more private contractors than rebels
* Westerners turning up near front lines
* U.S. secret operations still very low key
By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, June 2 (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and rebel groups seeking to depose him are both hiring private military contractors to bolster their fighting forces, according to U.S. and Western security officials.
They said small numbers of private contractors were turning up on the ground in Libya working with rebels fighting Gaddafi’s forces.
The officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said that -- to their knowledge -- none of the foreigners working with the rebels was American or being paid with U.S. government funds.
While the use of mercenaries by Gaddafi’s opponents appears to be new, the beleaguered Libyan leader has long used foreign freelancers, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. Gaddafi’s mercenaries outnumber the rebels’, U.S. officials said, and he is relying on them to reinforce what is left of his regular military, significantly weakened by an increasingly aggressive NATO military campaign.
Contractors working with the Benghazi-based rebels may have come from or been recruited through private military companies in countries such as France and Britain, which are playing the most active front-line roles in the NATO campaign.
Last month, four French nationals who had been working in Libya for private security firm Secopex were freed after apparently being held in Benghazi for several days by rebel forces. A fifth member of the group, former paratrooper Pierre Marziali, was killed at the time of their capture.
While there were allegations that Secopex was working for Gaddafi’s government, the company issued a statement saying that to the contrary, it was in contact with rebels. Secopex said its personnel had been offering bodyguard services to businessmen and were trying to establish a corridor for safe passage between Benghazi and Cairo.
A representative of the Harbour Group, a Washington public relations firm that represents the rebels’ National Transitional Council, said he had “no information” about private contractors working with Gaddafi’s opponents.
A classified “covert action finding” signed by U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this year authorized the CIA to plan and conduct a wide spectrum of operations in support of Gaddafi’s opponents. But so far, even on an undercover basis, U.S. government operations against Gaddafi have been limited, officials said.
They said CIA operatives have been on the ground in Libya collecting intelligence and providing some advice to rebels as well as helping them to organize.
Like the Obama Administration, Britain’s coalition government says it has drawn the line at financing mercenary operations against Gaddafi.
A representative for the British Embassy in Washington told Reuters: “There are no UK combat forces in Libya. Other than security for (British) personnel in Benghazi, (the British government) is not funding any private security or military company to work in Libya.”
Earlier this week, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that former soldiers from an elite British commando unit, the Special Air Service, and other private contractors from Western countries were on the ground in the Libyan city of Misrata.
The Guardian said contractors were helping NATO identify possible targets in the heavily contested city and passing this information, as well as information about the movements of Gaddafi’s forces, to a NATO command center in Naples, Italy. The newspaper reported that a group of six armed Westerners had been filmed by the Al Jazeera TV network talking to rebels in Misrata; the men fled after realizing they were being filmed.
U.S. officials have said the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which oppose Gaddafi, are willing to back his opponents with money and weapons.
One U.S. official said there are indications that Qatar may be paying outsiders to help the Libyan rebels. Qatar’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
One of the officials played up the involvement of mercenaries with Gaddafi’s forces, saying: “Foreign mercenaries who are participating in the Libyan conflict are fighting with Gaddafi’s forces. That’s an arrangement that Gaddafi’s had planned for years ago.”
The official played down the involvement of mercenaries with Gaddafi’s opponents, saying, “So far, we haven’t seen discernible foreign mercenary support on the rebel side.” (Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)