Nairobi, Kenya. Russian mercenaries stationed in one of Africa’s most volatile countries killed civilians, robbed homes and shot believers in mosques during a major military operation earlier this year, UN investigators found.
The allegations of atrocity are documented in a report to the UN Security Council obtained by The New York Times detailing the abuses surrounding the controversial Russia’s participation in the Central African Republic, a poor but mineral-rich country that has been in a state of civil war for nearly a decade.
The report says Russian mercenaries, acting under the guise of unarmed military advisers, led government forces into battle during an offensive to oust insurgents from several cities in January and February. Abuses aside, Russian militants have settled in the country’s large mining centers with large diamond reserves.
Abuses by Russian and Allied government forces “included excessive use of force, indiscriminate killings, school hijackings and large-scale looting, including by humanitarian organizations,” the investigation report said, based on photographic evidence and confidential witness statements. and local officials.
The Central African Republic turned to Russia in 2017 to wrest control of its diamond trade from rebels and help end the conflict that has left thousands dead and displaced over a million people since 2012.
The Kremlin has offered to send unarmed military instructors to help train the Central African army for a United Nations-approved mission that has waived the arms embargo on the Central African Republic since 2013.
But it quickly became clear that the Russian instructors were in fact armed mercenaries, and the operation turned into a thinly veiled attempt to build influence and close business deals for the Kremlin in Africa, including lucrative diamond deals, for the benefit of businessmen, including a confidant of President Vladimir Putin.
The Russians are deeply bogged down in the politics and security of Central Africa. Russian bodyguards protect President Faustin-Arschange Touadera, and a former Russian spy served as his security adviser.
Although Russian officials say they never had more than 550 instructors in the country, UN investigators found that at times the number reached 2,100.
Some of the companies employing instructors are affiliated with Evgeny Valerievich Prigozhin, who is close to Mr Putin and was indicted in the US in 2019 on charges of financing the “information war” and disrupting the 2016 US elections.
The violations, reported in a UN report to be published this week, took place during unrest in a former French colony. In late December, a newly formed rebel alliance tried to disrupt the elections and then launched a military offensive against the capital Bangui in an attempt to seize power.
The offensive failed, and in mid-January the government launched a massive counterattack that drove the rebels out of several major cities. As part of this, witnesses told UN investigators that allegedly unarmed Russian instructors led troops from Central Africa into battle “as they advanced through different cities and villages.” Accusations of atrocities against civilians followed.
According to the report, the rebels forcibly recruited child soldiers, attacked peacekeepers, robbed aid groups and sexually assaulted women.
In December, Russian intelligence services opened fire on a truck that was approaching a checkpoint in the town of Grimari, which, investigators found, killed three civilians and wounded 15.
Then in February, Russian government forces led an attack on the Takwa Mosque in Bambari, where the rebels took refuge among the faithful. The report says that at least six civilians were killed when the Russians stormed the mosque with gunfire.
The report also documents the killing of five other civilians by Russian troops, including two disabled people, and they are accused of stealing money, motorcycles and other valuables during house searches.
Russian officials have denied that their forces fired at civilians or committed violations. The coordinator of the Russian military mission in Bangui told investigators that the rebels were using the Takwa Mosque as a firing position. But he denied that the Russians had entered the building or opened fire on civilians.
In recent years, Russian security contractors have sprung up in other conflict-affected African countries, including Libya, Mozambique and South Sudan. In May, three Russians were killed in a military clash on the border between Chad and the Central African Republic.
This month, 10 Russians were detained in northern Chad in an area where the government was fighting insurgents. One of the Russians told the Reuters news agency that they are visiting the area in the Sahara for sightseeing.
Mr. Prigogine was previously associated with mercenary operations in Africa through his ties to the Wagner Group, a private military company that played a role in the wars in Libya and the United States. Syria… The word Wagner is also an acronym for Russian involvement in the Central African Republic, where companies associated with Mr. Prigozhin used mercenaries and entered into lucrative mining and logistics contracts.
In 2019 three Russian journalists were killed in the country while investigating Mr. Prigozhin’s ties to the gold and diamond trade. Local authorities promised to investigate, but no one was arrested or prosecuted.
The UN report notes that “Russian instructors have established a presence in key mining centers in the country,” but does not provide any further details. But in March, another UN body accused a company linked to Mr Prigozhin of involvement in extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and 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 repeatedly seen themselves directly involved in hostilities and even visibly injured or killed.”
“The reports also highlighted grave human rights violations, including rape, summary executions, targeted killings, torture, enforced disappearances, killings and other violations,” by Russian officials working in conjunction with government officials, the group wrote.
As the Russians penetrated deeper into the Central African Republic, they also launched a concerted propaganda campaign to gain public acceptance. In recent months, a film has been released depicting the Russians in the country as heroes – an echo of another. Russian film released last year in Libyapresenting in a favorable light two Russian prisoners who worked for a company associated with Mr. Prigozhin.
UN investigators had a different point of view. According to them, Russian abuses in the Central African Republic led to repression of other civilians, “perpetuating the cycle of violence in the country.”