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4th Feb 2023

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Russian mercenaries using EU-trained soldiers in Africa

  • EU Military Training Mission in République centrafricaine (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)
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Russian mercenaries have taken command of at least one EU-trained battalion in the Central African Republic (CAR) to help "predate" the mineral-rich country, according to a leaked report.

"Today, most deployed FACA units are operating under direct command or supervision by WG mercenaries. WG has also established a solid influence on the FACA general staff and other government institutions," the EU foreign service's report, dated 15 November and seen by EUobserver, said.

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  • Russian president Vladimir Putin (l) with Central African Republic president Faustin-Archange Touadéra (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

FACA refers to the Forces Armées centrafricaines, CAR president Faustin-Archange Touadéra's main army of some 12,500 men.

WG stands for Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked paramilitary force.

EU military advisors have been training CAR soldiers for years as part of a wider international presence in the war-torn country.

One unit "already certified by EUTM RCA", the EU Military Training Mission in République centrafricaine, was FACA's Bataillon d'Infanterie Territoriale 7, the EU report noted.

But the EU-trained battalion was "currently controlled by WG personnel ... against the agreement between EUTM and the CAR government," the leaked report said.

FACA soldiers had little contact with FACA general staff, "other than by cell phone with the sous-chef d'opérations in the EMA [Etat-major des Armées], who is closely linked with the RU [Russian] presence in CAR", the report said.

And "this lack of control is regularly exploited by RU/WG mercenaries, which then use deployed FACA units for their own purposes", it said.

The Russian-led battalions were fighting anti-Touadéra rebels in their countryside strongholds, the EU noted.

But Russia's main objective appeared to be "predation" of CAR's mineral wealth, its report indicated.

"The current deployment pattern of WG assets ... is covering all vital parts in the west and centre of CAR, with a priority to economically important mining areas in order to secure WG investments through the Lobaye Investment Company," the EU foreign service said.

"RU elements have also started to incur the vast natural reserves/environmental protection areas in the east of CAR like Chinko ... for yet unknown purposes," it said.

And Russia-led FACA forces stood accused of "arbitrary killings, rapes, and torture ... collection of illegal taxes and confiscation of goods," the EU noted.

"Severe human rights violations by RU mercenaries" might "deepen the breaches within the CAR population and with FACA units deployed on the ground and lead to further instability", the leaked report warned.

The EU's use of "WG/RU" showed European diplomats saw no difference between Russia's official and unofficial military men in Africa.

Wagner Group had "several hundred ... mercenaries" involved in guerrilla warfare in CAR, the EU noted.

Russia also had some 2,600 official "military personnel", who first came in 2018 to do training and who donated assault rifles, ammunition, and armoured vehicles, the report said.

The EU has been training CAR forces since 2014 to create a "credible security provider under democratic control".

It has some 500 military and civilian advisors there.

The UN also has around 14,500 mostly African peacekeepers.

The international presence shrank in April when the US pulled out "as a reaction to RU/WG use of US-donated vehicles to FACA", the EU report said.

Rwanda also pulled out in June after reported "atrocities" by "FACA and RU/WG", the EU said.

But in the meantime, Russia's presence grew.

Russia now had "solid influence" in "almost all domains of the [Touadéra] government", including "support through proxies in the National Assembly", the EU report said.

Russia's "complex hybrid strategy" also included leverage of the "financial debt of CAR towards RU/WG", it noted.

Wagner what?

The EU foreign service is drafting sanctions on Wagner Group amid French alarm that what happened in CAR might now happen in Mali.

"There's a common will to decide a legal framework for sanctions ... on the Wagner Group," French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in Brussels last week, after Wagner Group held talks with Mali's junta to replace French soldiers fighting jihadists there.

Wagner Group has also operated in Libya, Mozambique, Sudan, Syria, east Ukraine, and Venezuela.

It had some 5,000 fighters in total, a European security source told EUobserver.

These were ex-soldiers mostly from Russia, Russia-occupied east Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Serbia, the source said, as well as African mercenaries, including from CAR, Mali, and Sudan.

It was named after "Wagner", a military call-sign of Dmitry Utkin, a Russian ex-special forces officer.

The 51-year old from Pskov in Russia created and still commanded the group, the security source said.

But Wagner Group has no legal status in Russia or anywhere else, making it hard to pin down.

Its Lobaye company, mentioned in the EU report, was a CAR-registered mining firm.

Lobaye was, until recently, chaired by Yevgeny Khodotov, a former law-enforcement officer from St Petersburg in Russia.

And Khodotov was linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-friendly billionaire also from St Petersburg, through Prigozhin's Concord group of companies, the security source said.

Shadow-force

The EU already blacklisted Prigozhin last year.

It cited him for "pro­viding support for Wagner Group's activities" in Libya.

And the EU Parliament (EP) cast extra light on Russia's shadow-force last week.

"The Wagner Group allegedly relies on Russian military infrastructure, shares a base with the Russian military, is transported by Russian military aircraft, and uses military healthcare services ... it is financed in part through multimillion-dollar catering and construction contracts for the Russian armed forces awarded to companies linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin," the EP said in a report.

"Sanctions should be imposed and, in particular, it's about travel bans and freezing of WG operatives' assets [in the EU]", the European security source said.

"All countries using the services of this paramilitary group and its affiliates, especially CAR, Mali, and Sudan, should be called upon to sever ties with the [Wagner] group," the source said.

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