Abidjan - A British former SAS man is flying a helicopter gunship for the Ivory Coast government, one of six foreign mercenaries from a group of at least 50 recruited by Saudi Arabian diamond speculator in September, according to mercenary sources.
The rest are said to have left recently under pressure from France, the former colonial power, which has a force in Ivory Coast trying to keep the government and rebel forces apart.
The six helicopter gunship pilots remaining are the British former member of B-squadron SAS, a Frenchman and four South Africans. They are flying sorties against the three rebel groups which control 60% of the country.
Almost all the mercenaries were former employees of Executive Outcomes, a South African company disbanded in 1999 after the government introduced a law banning mercenary activity by its nationals.
Executive Outcomes drew international attention to the industry, worth an estimated £30bn a year in the late 90s, by fighting for the besieged governments of Angola and Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone the British mercenary company Sandline International broke a UN arms embargo, allegedly with British government approval.
"Executive Outcomes has officially run its course, because the South African government didn't like having a formal mercenary headquarters around," said Roy Kaulback, an analyst for Jane's Intelligence Review in Abidjan. "But we're seeing exactly the same people on the ground here.
"There appears to be an informalising of the industry. We can expect to see a lot more wars in Africa, and that means work for soldiers. To get these guys together only takes a couple of phone calls."
Jim Maguire, 46, a former Royal Marine from London who went on to serve in the Rhodesian and South African special forces, was a mercenary in Ivory Coast for three months, until he left the country three weeks ago. He now lives in Johannesburg.
He received a call in early October and was fighting 24-hour gun battles against well-trained Liberian insurgents by the month's end.
"It's normally done by word of mouth," he said. "The guys know each other, and if you know the people you get the jobs."
"Some French guys put this one together - the French have always been deeply involved in this game - but no companies, you understand."
The three-month contract was worth €6,000 (£4,000) a month, he said Mr Maguire. There was no offer of compensation for death or injury.
The mercenaries met in Abidjan on October 22 and were immediately deployed. The mission was described as a "72-hour policing operation" to support the Ivoirean army in the west, Mr Maguire said.
But it went disastrously wrong.
"It's like any team," he said. "If you've not played a game together before, it doesn't go too well. But this was a big shock."
Contrary to their briefing, the mercenaries found not a drug-crazed rabble of rebels fleeing disciplined government troops, but the reverse: battle-hardened fighters from Liberia and Sierra Leone terrorising raw Ivoirean recruits.
He said: "They were a very well-organised, well-equipped enemy, very determined to win. The attacks were ferocious - it's not the 1960s any more, when a bunch of white guys can take a country with four rifles. This is real war."
In the first battle, at Belloa, at least six Ivoireans died and two French mercenaries were blinded by a grenade.
Three months later Mr Maguire was still in the west, half-dead with malaria, and cut off behind rebel lines alongside his 14 remaining comrades.
"In the end we were being attacked permanently, day and night. We were the only front to hold up," he said. "We got totally cut off. We had no radio and not enough ammunition. It wasn't good."
Mr Maguire and the other mercenary infantrymen were asked to leave Ivory Coast after France pushed through a peace accord in Paris last month.
But with the Ivorian government having since broken the agreement and the rebels promising to redouble the attack, Mr Kaulbak and other military analysts in Abidjan believe that this was a wrongheaded decision.
"You have two sides sufficiently infuriated with each other to go to war, and the west comes in and says, 'you must start talking to each other,' when they probably consider the time for talking is past," he said. "It's rather insulting really."
"If you want peace, you have to impose it - which you can't do by imposing peace talks.
"Here the mercenaries can be pivotal. With a few high-quality soldiers, assisting one side or another, you could actually finish the thing."
A South African gunship pilot in Abidjan, who goes by the nom de guerre of "Lieutenant-Colonel Fred", agreed.
"A military solution's the only solution," said Fred, a veteran of wars in Angola - on both sides - Sierra Leone, and Papua New Guinea.
"As a mercenary you can go and fight for the rebels, and I say that's bad; or you can assist a legitimate government which has no experience of fighting a war, and I say that's good."
Fred cited Executive Outcomes' Sierra Leone intervention, where it held a vicious rebel movement at bay for two years with only 120 men. After international pressure, they were replaced by 15,000 UN peacekeepers, many of whom the rebels promptly kidnapped or killed, causing their mission to be aborted.
But Fabien Hara of the International Crisis Group, a thinktank focusing on conflict resolution, quoted Machiavelli: "You don't win wars with mercenaries."
In her view the mercenaries in Ivory Coast have become a proxy army, representing a tiny slice of the population. "It's not a question of practicality, but principle - of whether mercenaries should be there at all," she said.
Principle is not an alien concept to Mr Maguire. He turned down an offer to fight the rebels in Angola with Executive Outcomes - having already fought on the other side - and $10,000 (£7,000) a month from Liberia to oppose British troops in Sierra Leone.
But he conceded that mercenaries might not be best-placed to judge the rights and wrongs of a cause.
"I don't get too interested in the politics of a situation. I just do my job, try not to get killed, and I leave," he said.
"I don't even like it as much as I used to. I've got two young kids now and they're always on my mind. I suppose there might be a bit of enjoyment still, but it's really just about the money."
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