Russian mercenaries behind war crimes in Africa, UN says

NAIROBI, Kenya – Russian mercenaries deployed to one of Africa’s most fragile countries killed civilians, looted homes and gunned down worshipers in a mosque during a major military operation earlier this year, discovered United Nations investigators.

The accusations of atrocities are documented in a report for the UN Security Council which was obtained by The New York Times and which details abuses linked to Russia’s controversial involvement in the Central African Republic, an impoverished but impoverished country. rich in minerals that has been locked away. civil war for nearly a decade.

Russian mercenaries, deployed under the guise of unarmed military advisers, led government forces into combat in an offensive to oust rebels from several towns in January and February, according to the report. And in addition to committing abuses, Russian agents have established themselves in the main mining centers of a country with large diamond reserves.

Violations by the Russians and allied government troops “included cases of excessive force, indiscriminate killings, occupation of schools and large-scale looting, including of humanitarian organizations,” the report said. investigation, based on photographic evidence and confidential testimony. and local officials.

The Central African Republic turned to Russia in 2017 to wrest control of its diamond trade from the rebels and to help end a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than a million people since 2012 .

The Kremlin has offered to send unarmed military trainers to help train the CAR army in a UN-blessed mission, which created an exception to the arms embargo against the Central African Republic in place since 2013.

But it quickly became clear that the Russian trainers were in fact armed mercenaries, and the operation turned into a thinly veiled effort to build influence and secure trade deals for the Kremlin in Africa, including lucrative diamond deals, for the benefit of businessmen, including a close confidant of President Vladimir V. Putin.

The Russians have become deeply involved in Central African politics and security. Russian bodyguards protect President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and a former Russian spy served as his security adviser.

Although Russian officials say they have never had more than 550 trainers in the country, UN investigators have found that figure sometimes reaches 2,100 people.

Several of the companies that employ the trainers are linked to Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who is close to Mr. Putin and was indicted in the United States in 2019 for financing the “information war” and disrupting the 2016 US election. .

The abuses covered by the UN report, to be released this week, occurred during a period of turmoil in the former French colony. At the end of December, a newly formed rebel alliance attempted to disrupt the elections, then launched a military offensive on the capital, Bangui, in an attempt to seize power.

The offensive failed, and in mid-January the government launched a radical counterattack that eventually drove the rebels out of several major cities. As part of this, witnesses told UN investigators that allegedly unarmed Russian trainers led the Central African troops into combat “as they advanced through various towns and villages.” Charges of atrocities against civilians followed.

Rebels forcibly recruited child soldiers, attacked peacekeepers, looted aid groups and sexually assaulted women, according to the report.

In December, Russian security officers opened fire on a truck as it approached a checkpoint in the town of Grimari, killing three civilians and injuring 15, investigators said.

Then, in February, the Russians led government troops in an attack on the Takwa Mosque in Bambari, where rebels had taken refuge among worshipers. At least six civilians were killed when the Russians stormed the mosque, firing their weapons, according to the report.

The report also documents the killing of five other civilians by Russian forces, including two disabled men, and accuses them of looting money, motorcycles and other valuables during house searches.

Russian officials deny that their forces fired at civilians or committed abuses. The coordinator of the Russian military mission in Bangui told investigators that the rebels had used the Takwa Mosque as a firing position. But he denied that Russians entered the building or shot civilians.

In recent years, Russian security entrepreneurs have emerged in other conflict-affected African countries, including Libya, Mozambique and South Sudan. Three Russians were killed in a military clash on the border between Chad and the Central African Republic in May.

This month, 10 Russians were detained in northern Chad, in an area where the government was fighting rebels. One of the Russians told Reuters news agency he was visiting the region in the Sahara for sightseeing.

Mr. Prigozhin has previously been linked to mercenary operations in Africa through his ties to the Wagner Group, a private military company that played a role in the war in Libya and Syria. The word Wagner has also become a shorthand for Russian involvement in the Central African Republic, where companies with ties to Mr. Prigozhin have deployed mercenaries and signed lucrative mining and logistics contracts.

In 2019, three Russian journalists were killed in the country while investigating Mr. Prigozhin’s links to the gold and diamond trade. Local authorities have promised an investigation, but no one has been arrested or prosecuted.

The UN report notes that “Russian instructors have established a presence in the country’s main mining centers,” but does not offer further details. But in March, another United Nations body accused a company linked to Mr. Prigozhin of being involved in extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and acts of torture.

In a letter to the director of Lobaye Invest, a Russian company in Bangui, the United Nations working group on the use of mercenaries wrote: “Private contractors have been seen on several occasions directly participating in hostilities, and even suffering visible bodily harm, being injured or killed.

“Reports also suggest serious human rights violations, including rape, summary executions, targeted assassinations, torture, enforced disappearances, killings and other abuses,” by Russian personnel operating in conjunction with government soldiers, the group wrote.

As the Russians sank deeper into the Central African Republic, they also mounted a concerted propaganda campaign to gain public favor. In recent months, a film has been released portraying the country’s Russians as heroes – an echo of another Russian film released last year in Libya, which put a favorable light on two jailed Russians who worked for a company linked to Mr. Prigozhin.

UN investigators had a different point of view. Russian abuses in the Central African Republic have led to reprisals against other civilians, they said, “perpetuating the cycle of violence in the country.”

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