An international development group called Sunday for strict regulations of private security companies in combat zones, ahead of a conference of British defense firms who hold contracts worth more than 1 billion ($1.88b.) a year in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Campaign group War on Want delivered a list of recommended regulations for the industry to Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, calling for increased scrutiny of allegations of human rights abuses by private security staff.
In a report, War on Want called for details of government contracts with defense companies to be made public and proposed restrictions on lawmakers and civil servants taking jobs within the sector after leaving office.
"We want the revolving door between government and the private defense industry to slam shut," War on Want spokesman Paul Collins said.
Andy Bearpark, director general of the British Association of Private Security Companies, an industry-funded lobby group, said government regulation was unworkable.
He said his members, who meet Monday in London for their first annual conference, would instead urge Beckett to appoint an independent ombudsman to oversee their operations.
"The way we work is across international boundaries, so regulation or prosecutions through national laws would be complex," Bearpark told the Association Press in an interview.
"Our members support 100 percent moves to regulate the industry and we are calling on the British government to appoint an independent ombudsman, who would carry out inquiries into alleged abuses."
Britain's Foreign Office said a review of options for regulating the industry had begun, but there was no timescale for putting proposals to parliament.
"There is an agreement that there should be some form of regulation," said a Foreign Office spokesman, on condition of anonymity under civil service restrictions.
Bearpark, former director of operations and infrastructure for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said British security contractors earned around 1b. per year.
War on Want claims the total value of the industry worldwide topped $100b. in 2004 and has estimated there are 48,000 private security contractors working in Iraq. The US-led coalition and private Western groups operating in Iraq have come to rely on contractors for many security duties, including guarding facilities and some highways.
At least 300 are reported to have been killed, while some Iraqis have complained that private workers have used excessive force.
War on Want spokesman Collins said his group recognized the need for private security, but believed the industry urgently required tighter regulation.
"What we want to see is the proper investigation and prosecution of human rights abuses being perpetrated by mercenaries," Collins said.
The report claims civilian contractors - including men named in US military reports as having carried out abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison - have repeatedly escaped prosecution for crimes.
Two workers employed by private defense companies CACI International Inc. and Titan Corp. were "either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib," a report by US Army Maj.-Gen. Antonio Taguba said.
The report also cites the case of a video distributed on the Internet which purported to show security contractors from London-based Aegis Defense Services Ltd. firing at Iraqi civilian vehicles.
Set to a soundtrack of Elvis Presley's song "Mystery Train," the film showed cars swerving to avoid the fire. At one point, a car crashes after being hit by bullets.
Collins said it is one of "hundreds of accounts of personnel from private military and security firms committing abuses in Iraq." A US military investigation cleared Aegis employees of any offense, Bearpark said. But he acknowledged the incident had tarnished the image of his sector.
"There is a definite image problem - the public perception of the industry is a world away from the reality. People tend to think we are constantly staging coups in small African states," Bearpark said.
He said his organization's two-day conference would be addressed by Lt.-Gen. David Richards, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, and former British defense secretary Malcolm Rifkind.
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