Russian mercenaries deployed in one of Africa's most fragile countries killed civilians, looted homes and shot dead worshippers at a mosque during a major military operation earlier this year, United Nations investigators have found.
The accusations of atrocities are documented in a report for the UN Security Council that was obtained by the New York Times and that details abuses tied to the contentious Russian involvement in the Central African Republic, an impoverished yet mineral-rich country that has been locked in civil war for nearly a decade.
Russian mercenaries, deployed in the guise of unarmed military advisers, led government forces into battle during an offensive to oust rebels from several towns in January and February, the report found. And as well as committing abuses, the Russian operatives established themselves in the major mining centers of a country with large reserves of diamonds.
Violations by the Russians and allied government troops “included cases of excessive force, indiscriminate killings, occupation of schools and looting on a large scale, including of humanitarian organisations”, said the investigative report, which was based on photographic evidence and confidential accounts by witnesses 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 killed thousands and displaced more than a million people since 2012.
The Kremlin offered to send unarmed military trainers to help train the Central African army in a mission blessed by the United Nations, which carved out an exception to the arms embargo on 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 has evolved into a thinly veiled effort to build influence and strike business deals for the Kremlin in Africa, including lucrative diamond deals, to the benefit of businessmen including a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin.
The Russians have become deeply enmeshed in Central African politics and security. Russian bodyguards protect President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and a former Russian spy has served as his security adviser.
Although Russian officials say they have never had more than 550 trainers in the country, UN investigators found the figure was sometimes as high as 2,100 personnel. Several of the companies that employ the trainers are tied to Yevgeny V Prigozhin, who is close to Putin and was indicted in the United States in 2019 on charges of financing "information warfare" and disrupting the 2016 US election.
The abuses covered in the UN report, to be released this week, occurred during a period of tumult in the former French colony. In late December, a newly formed rebel alliance tried to disrupt 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 began a sweeping counterattack that eventually ousted the rebels from several major towns. As part of that, witnesses told UN investigators that supposedly unarmed Russian trainers had led Central African troops into battle “as they advanced on different towns and villages”. Accusations of atrocities against civilians followed.
The rebels forcibly recruited child soldiers, attacked peacekeepers, looted aid groups and sexually assaulted women, according to the report. In December, Russian security contractors opened fire on a truck as it approached a checkpoint in the city of Grimari, killing three civilians and wounding 15, investigators found.
Then in February, the Russians led government troops in an attack on the Takwa mosque in Bambari, where rebels had taken shelter among worshippers. At least six civilians were killed as Russians stormed the mosque, firing their weapons, the report said.
The report also documents the killing of five other civilians by Russian forces, including two disabled men, and accuses them of looting money, motorbikes and other valuables during house searches. Russian officials deny that their forces fired on civilians or committed abuses. The co-ordinator 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 had entered the building or fired on civilians.
In recent years, Russian security contractors have appeared in other conflict-hit 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 battling rebels. One of the Russians told the Reuters news agency they were visiting the area, in the Sahara, to go sightseeing.
Prigozhin has previously been linked to mercenary operations in Africa through his ties with the Wagner Group, a private military company that has played a role in the war in Libya and Syria. The word Wagner has also become shorthand for Russian involvement in the Central African Republic, where companies with links to Prigozhin have deployed mercenaries and scored lucrative mining and logistics contracts.
In 2019, three Russian journalists were killed in the country while investigating Prigozhin’s links to the gold and diamond trade. The local authorities promised an investigation, but nobody has been arrested or prosecuted.
The UN report notes that “Russian instructors have established a presence in the country’s key mining centres”, but offers no further details. But in March, another UN body accused a company linked to Prigozhin of involvement in extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture.
In a letter to the director of Lobaye Invest, a Russian company in Bangui, the UN working group on the use of mercenaries wrote: "Private contractors were seen on several occasions to directly participate in hostilities, and even sustaining visible body harm, being wounded or killed."
“Reports also suggest grave human rights abuses, including rape, summary execution, targeted killings, torture, forced disappearances, murder and other abuses,” by Russian personnel operating jointly with government soldiers, the group wrote.
As the Russians pushed deeper into the Central African Republic, they have also mounted a concerted propaganda campaign to gain public favour. In recent months, a film came out portraying Russians in the country as heroes – an echo of another Russian film that came out last year in Libya, presenting two imprisoned Russians who worked for a company linked to Prigozhin in a favourable light.
The UN investigators had a different view. The Russians’ abuses in the Central African Republic have led to reprisals against other civilians, they said, “perpetuating the cycle of violence in the country.” – New York Times