KAMPALA -- Mystery shrouded a drive on Wednesday to recruit thousands of Ugandans to work as guards at U.S. facilities in Iraq and elsewhere, after the U.S embassy in Kampala said the exercise appeared to be a scam.
Several hundred university graduates, school leavers and army veterans began training in a city park after a local company, Askar Security Services, said it had been hired by "international partners" to recruit Ugandans for work at public and private installations in Iraq and other countries.
The independent Monitor newspaper said the exercise had been approved by the U.S. State Department, but U.S. embassy spokesman Mark Schlachter rejected the report.
"The claims made in this story bear all the hallmarks of a scam -- no doubt intended to separate Ugandan jobseekers from their money," he said in a letter published by the Monitor on Wednesday. "Let me be rightly understood: to the best of my knowledge there is absolutely no truth to the story."
U.S. troops are battling growing insecurity in Iraq, where a campaign of guerrilla violence has killed nearly 400 Iraqis since a new government was unveiled two weeks ago. Four suicide bombs killed at least 71 people on Wednesday alone.
But many in impoverished Uganda are undeterred by the risks, and up to 1,000 mostly young men marched, jogged and goose-stepped around a suburban park on Tuesday after signing up in the hope of being deployed.
Some aspiring recruits threatened to beat up a local television crew who tried to talk to them, and one recruit was instantly rejected by Askar trainers after they saw him being interviewed on camera, WBS television said on Wednesday.
The man protested in vain, saying he had only been describing his woes as an unemployed graduate in Uganda, and saying he would travel anywhere for work -- including Iraq.
Local reporters said no money was changing hands at the event. In 2002, thousands of Kenyans paid more than $100 each to secure fictitious jobs on cruise liners. Schlachter told Reuters the reported Iraq offer had "similar characteristics".
Askar Security officials at the scene were quoted as saying the first recruits were due to leave Uganda next week to begin non-military guard work in Iraq and other countries.
"The people who approached us were from the U.S. and the American embassy is aware of this. They have permission from the (Ugandan) ministry of foreign and internal affairs," Askar Managing Director Hellen Kayonga was quoted as telling the state-owned New Vision newspaper.
Contacted by telephone on Wednesday, Kayonga told Reuters she was not aware of any recruitment exercise and denied speaking to the newspaper, before hanging up.
Jerome Ndiho, another Askar official, was quoted by the New Vision as saying the company had been contacted by U.S.-based Kroll Risk Group and South Africa's Coin Security Group to recruit Ugandans.
"That claim is completely untrue. We are categorically not recruiting in Uganda and have no intention of doing so," a Kroll spokesman in London told Reuters by telephone. Coin Security Group said officials in Pretoria were studying the report and would issue a comment later.
Uganda's Internal Affairs Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, was not immediately available for comment. On Sunday, the Monitor quoted him as saying he was aware of a programme to train Ugandan guards for duties at home and "if necessary abroad, but it is strictly a private initiative".
- 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign