The United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to United States, European and Arab officials.
The meeting took place around January 11 - nine days before Trump's inauguration - in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, officials said. Though the full agenda remains unclear, the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump Administration objective that would likely require major concessions to Moscow on US sanctions.
Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition team, he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high-ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his meeting with the Putin confidant, according to the officials, who did not identify the Russian.
Prince was an avid supporter of Trump who gave US$250,000 ($357,300) last year to support the GOP nominee's campaign, records show. He has ties to people in Trump's circle, including Stephen Bannon, now serving as the president's chief strategist and senior counsellor. Prince's sister Betsy DeVos serves as Education Secretary in the Trump Administration. And Prince was seen in the Trump transition offices in New York in December.
US officials said the FBI has been scrutinising the Seychelles meeting as part of a broader probe of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election and alleged contacts between associates of Putin and Trump. The FBI declined to comment.
The Seychelles encounter, which one official said spanned two days, adds to an expanding web of connections between Russia and Americans with ties to Trump - contacts that the White House has been reluctant to acknowledge or explain until they have been exposed by news organisations.
"We are not aware of any meetings and Erik Prince had no role in the transition," said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary.
"Erik had no role on the transition team. This is a complete fabrication," said a spokesman for Prince in a statement. "The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump."
Prince is best known as the founder of Blackwater, a security firm that became a symbol of US abuses in Iraq after a series of incidents including one in 2007 in which the company's guards were accused - and later criminally convicted - of killing civilians in a crowded Iraqi square. Prince sold the firm, which was subsequently rebranded, but has continued building a private paramilitary empire with contracts across the Middle East and Asia.
The Seychelles meeting came after private discussions in New York involving high-ranking representatives of Trump, Moscow and the Emirates.
The White House has acknowledged that Michael Flynn, Trump's original national security adviser, and Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in late November or early December in New York.
Flynn and Kushner were joined by Bannon for a separate meeting with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who made an undisclosed visit to New York later in December, according to the US, European and Arab officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
In an unusual breach of protocol, the UAE did not notify the Obama Administration in advance of the visit, though officials found out because Zayed's name appeared on a flight manifest.
Officials said Zayed and his brother, the UAE's national security adviser, co-ordinated the Seychelles meeting with Russian government officials with the goal of establishing an unofficial back channel between Trump and Putin.
Officials said Zayed wanted to be helpful to both leaders who had talked about working more closely together, a policy objective long advocated by the crown prince. The UAE, which sees Iran as one of its main enemies, also shared the Trump team's interest in finding ways to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran.
Less than a week before the Seychelles meeting, US intelligence agencies released a report accusing Russia of intervening clandestinely during the 2016 election to help Trump win the White House.
Government officials in the Seychelles said they were not aware of any meetings between Trump and Putin associates in the country around January 11. But they said luxury resorts on the island are ideal for clandestine gatherings like the one described by the US, European and Arab officials.
The Seychelles meeting was deemed productive by the UAE and Russia but the idea of arranging additional meetings between Prince and Putin's associates was dropped, officials said. Even unofficial contacts between Trump and Putin associates had become too politically risky, officials said.