updated 10/17/2007 11:00:04 PM ET 2007-10-18T03:00:04

The U.S. government on Wednesday rejected a U.N. report that said the use of private security guards like those involved in the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians amounted to a new form of mercenary activity.

The report by a five-member panel of independent U.N. human rights experts said the contractors were performing military duties even though they were hired to be security guards. The killing of 17 civilians in Baghdad last month by Blackwater USA guards underscores the risks of using such contractors, said panel chairman, Jose Luis Gomez del Prado of Spain.

A spokesman for the U.S. Mission to U.N. offices in Geneva released a statement Wednesday denying the security guards were mercenaries.

“Accusations that U.S. government-contracted security guards, of whatever nationality, are mercenaries is inaccurate and demeaning to men and women who put their lives on the line to protect people and facilities every day,” the statement said.

“The security guards working for U.S. government contractors in Iraq and elsewhere protect clearly defined United States government areas, and their work is defensive in nature,” it said.

Although the use of mercenaries is discouraged in international rules of conduct of war, the hiring of foreign soldiers by one country for use in a third is specifically illegal only for the 30 countries that ratified a 1989 treaty. The U.S. and Iraq are among the many countries that never signed the accord.

“The trend toward outsourcing and privatizing various military functions by a number of member states in the past 10 years has resulted in the mushrooming of private military and security companies,” the U.N. panel’s report said.

The “tremendous increase” in the number of such companies — including those working for the U.S. State and Defense departments — has occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the report, which will be presented to the U.N. General Assembly next month.

A joint U.S.-Iraqi panel has been created to review the practices of security companies, and Congress has opened inquiries into the role of the contractors. Multiple U.S. investigations into the Baghdad shooting are under way.

Gomez del Prado said the panel has been studying the use of contractors for two years and found that they were being hired from all over the world.

Experts from the panel visited Honduras, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Fiji to look into recruiting and training practices by the private contractors.

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