The United States says it has sanctioned three people over their roles in South Sudan's civil war, including a retired Israeli major general, Israel Ziv.
In a statement Friday, the U.S. Treasury said Ziv and South Sudanese businessman Obac William Olawo led entities whose efforts extended the conflict, while South Sudanese official Gregory Vasili took part in "actions that have undermined peace, stability and security." Ziv has denied any wrongdoing.
"Ziv used an agricultural company that was nominally present in South Sudan to carry out agricultural and housing projects for the government of South Sudan as a cover for the sale of approximately $150 million worth of weapons to the government, including rifles, grenade launchers and shoulder-fired rockets," the Treasury said.
"Ziv has been paid through the oil industry and has had close collaboration with a major multinational oil firm," the Treasury added. "While Ziv maintained the loyalty of senior government of South Sudan officials through bribery and promises of security support, he has also reportedly planned to organize attacks by mercenaries on South Sudanese oil fields and infrastructure, in an effort to create a problem that only his company and affiliates could solve."
The United States also designated three entities in Israel that are owned or controlled by Ziv: Global N.T.M. Ltd., Global Law Enforcement and Security Ltd., and Global IZ Group Ltd.
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According to two diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in 2011, the U.S. administration moved aggressively to curb activities by Ziv in Latin America between 2008 and 2010, threatening to cut ties with governments if they hired the services of Ziv’s security company Global CST.
Global CST, a provider of security consulting and military training to security forces in Latin America and Africa, also made a pitch for civilian projects.
According to the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats reported on Ziv’s negotiations with the governments of Colombia, Peru and Panama, and even tried to undermine, sometimes successfully, dealings with Global CST. The cables appear to show that the hostility was prompted not only by financial interests but by concerns that Ziv’s activities posed a security risk to the United States.
On Friday, the Treasury said Washington was targeting people who have "provided soldiers, armored vehicles and weapons used to fuel the conflict," adding that the United States would continue to target those who "profit off the misery and suffering of the South Sudanese people."
The civil war has killed nearly 400,000 people in five years. There was no immediate response from South Sudan's government, which has bristled at rising U.S. criticism and pressure, including a threat to withdraw aid.
Watchdog group The Sentry quickly praised the U.S. move. "Today's sanctions clearly show the intersection between corruption and armed conflict in South Sudan," Joshua White, the group's director of policy and analysis, said in a statement. "We need more of these designations to chip away at the violent kleptocracy."
Ziv set up Global CST in 2006 after retiring as head of operations at Israel's General Staff. The company trained the Georgian army in the middle of the past decade, before the war with Russia prompted Israel to cut part of the military aid to Georgia.
It was speculated that Global CST personnel helped in the release of FARC hostage and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and Ziv has signed a contract with the Colombian government to plan strategy against the underground.
The company has also trained counterterrorism units in Togo, Guinea, Gabon and Nigeria, and won a $10 million contract to train the presidential guard of Moussa Dadis Camara, the leader of a short-lived coup in Guinea.
Ziv "was surprised and shocked" to learn of the allegations, according to a statement on his behalf made on Saturday. "These allegations are baseless." Ziv relayed that in recent years he has been involved in extensive agricultural projects in South Sudan, "which generate income and food security for millions of residents of this miserable, conflict-ridden country."
The statement went on to say that Ziv "is a law-abiding person, who will cooperate with any international agency seeking to look into his activities in South Sudan with full transparency and no reservations. The decision of the [Treasury] stems from a grave error that has not even been examined, and Mr. Ziv is already holding contacts with it in an effort to rectify the error."