On June 27, The New York Times reported on a United Nations investigation into alleged war crimes involving Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic (CAR).
The Russians, who Moscow officially claims are unarmed military “instructors,” stand accused of excessive force, indiscriminate killings and looting, among other things.
Asked about the Times report at a press briefing, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov flatly denied the allegations. According to the state-run Russian news agency TASS, he said they were a concoction of the “Western media.”
"Russian military advisers could by no means participate in murders and killings, and they did not participate in them,” TASS quoted him as saying. “It is another lie."
That is false.
Although the accusations may be open to dispute, they are backed up. Indeed, the Times noted that the U.N. report is “based on photographic evidence and confidential accounts by witnesses and local officials.” The Times said the report is due for release this week.
Russian involvement in the Central African Republic is believed to stretch back to 2017, when Russia offered military support for its government, which was facing a rebellion.
Initially, the U.N. approved Russia’s offer of military instructors to CAR. However, questions quickly arose about the instructors and their mission.
In the summer of 2018, three Russian journalists were killed in CAR while investigating the Russian military presence there. Specifically, they were attempting to verify rumors that the private Russian military company known as Wagner Group, or Wagner PMC, was guarding diamond-mining operations.
Wagner’s origins are murky, but the group first appeared in Ukraine in 2014 during the Donbas conflict. It garnered further attention when a number of its personnel were killed in Syria by U.S. military forces during a failed attack on U.S.-allied troops near Deir Ezzor in 2018.
Around this time, news reports linked the group to Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a career restaurateur with long ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and contracts with Russia’s Defense Ministry.
Russian authorities claimed the killing of the Russian journalists in CAR in 2018 happened during a robbery. Russia has also denied that Wagner was present in CAR, a claim debunked by Polygraph.info and other factcheckers.
The U.N. found that CAR government forces attacked civilians with the help of Russian mercenaries.
CNN detailed an incident in a town called Bambari this past February. It quoted a woman named Fatouma who said that government troops, aided by Russians, attacked villagers and continued the attack after she and others took refuge in a local mosque. Locals denied that armed rebels were in the area.
Fatouma told CNN that both of her children were shot (they survived). Photos showed the body of a victim prepared for burial, as well as bullet holes in the mosque’s walls. Witnesses told CNN that some villagers were shot “in cold blood” after surrendering to government and Russian forces.
In March, the U.N. said its investigators in CAR received “reports of grave human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, attributable to the private military personnel operating jointly with CAR’s armed forces (FACA) and in some instances U.N. peacekeepers.”
The alleged abuses included mass summary executions and torture during interrogation. The U.N. then did not specify what role, if any, Russian military advisers played.
Wagner’s mercenaries have been accused of atrocities in other countries. In 2019, a video originally taken in 2017 resurfaced on social media, showing Wagner mercenaries mutilating and burning the corpse of a purported rebel in Syria.
In Libya, Wagner mercenaries support Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army against the U.N.-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord. In 2020, Middle East Eye spoke with a Libyan man who was nearly killed in a mass execution allegedly carried out by Russian mercenaries. In the Libyan town of Ain Zara, Russian mercenaries reportedly defaced a mosque with anti-Muslim and neo-Nazi graffiti.
Russia’s military mission in the Central African Republic has been described as “coup-proofing” on behalf of the country’s president, Faustin-Archange Touadera.
Neil Edwards, an Open Source African Media Analyst at Novetta, a McLean, Virginia-based analytics company, wrote in March that Touadera, who won re-election in December, holds little authority outside of the capital of Bangui.
In late 2017, the CAR government began an increasingly close partnership with Russia, even including Russians in the president’s security detail.
To disrupt last December's elections, a coalition of rebel groups launched an offensive to take the capital, but the attack was blunted and government forces counter-attacked. Also that month, Russia said it would send 300 additional military instructors to the CAR. In January, the country's elections authority declared Touadera winner of a second term in office.
On June 22, the BBC reported that a coalition of opposition parties in CAR had called for Russian military advisers to leave the country, citing human rights abuses. They reportedly accused the Russians of taking part in the killing of 10 civilians and burning homes.