Russian mercenaries exploit war-torn African nation as they lead Putin fight in Ukraine


“I asked everyone for help. … Should I have refused help from those who wanted to help us?’ Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera tells NBC News.

BANGWII, Central African Republic — President Faustin-Archange Touadéra says he called the Russians because he was stuck.

It was 2016, shortly after his election, and rebels had seized swaths of the resource-rich country, which is among the world’s poorest nations. Former colonial power France has announced it will withdraw its troops, the backbone of a United Nations force aimed at suppressing the country’s civil war.

And Tuadera’s army and militia did not have enough weapons to defeat the militants threatening the capital, Bangui, because the Central African Republic was under a UN arms embargo imposed after a previous rebel takeover.

So the former math teacher turned to Moscow.

While Russia received approval from the UN Security Council to deploy military trainers to assist the Central African country’s government, Moscow sent the infamous Wagner Group.

“I couldn’t sit idly by. I asked all my friends, including the United States, including France,” Touadera, 66, said during an exclusive interview with NBC News last week.

“I have to protect the population. I must protect the institutions of democracy. I asked everyone for help and I had to refuse help from those who wanted to help us?’ he added.

But Wagner’s help isn’t free.

In return for their work, the group gained direct access to the Central African Republic’s natural resources, according to Sorcha MacLeod, a member of the UN’s working group on the use of mercenaries.

“We received information in the Central African Republic that the Wagner Group was being paid for mining concessions,” he said.

The trade in natural resources gives Wagner, and Russia, a way to avoid sanctions imposed since the start of the war in Ukraine last February.

And now, despite the fact that Wagner sent tens of thousands of fighters to the war in Ukraine, many of whom were former prisoners, there was no exit of the group from Africa. Instead, there was a “doubling of Wagner’s presence” and expansion into other countries, MacLeod said.

The mercenary group operates in an unstable environment. The Central African Republic has suffered a series of coups and failed governments since gaining independence from France in 1960. The latest coup in 2013, pitting Christian and Muslim militias against each other, was organized by the Séléka, a coalition of rebel groups.

A UN peacekeeping mission has not eliminated the violence and, in fact, hundreds of its soldiers have been sent home after reports of sexual abuse.

Mines and mercenaries
Wherever Wagner went, accusations of widespread and rampant human rights abuses followed, including executions, rape and torture.

While Touadera never used the word Wagner, Sewa Security Services and the International Security Officers Association operate in the Central African Republic on behalf of the mercenary group, according to the US Treasury Department, which has sanctioned them.

Prior to the interview with Touadéra, an NBC News crew saw two of the country’s top Wagner representatives, Vitaly Perfilev and Dmitry Sytii, accompany a Russian television crew to the president’s offices. Perfilev has been sanctioned by the European Union for being “responsible for serious human rights violations” while working for Wagner in the country.

NBC News, in partnership with US-based investigative and advocacy group The Sentry, examined Wagner’s role in controlling the Ndassima gold mine in the center of the nation and developing the site into a large-scale operation with the potential to net profits of the group of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Officially, Russian “trainers” were on a mission to clear the rebels from the area in 2021. However, witnesses and official reports accuse the group of targeting civilians, some of whom had been involved in small-scale or “technical” mining in the area.

According to Sentry, Wagner forcibly took control of Ndassima.

A 25-year-old woman, whose name is being withheld for her protection, said her husband was working at the mine when he was ordered out by Russian fighters in the fall of 2021.

“When they came, they presented documents saying that it was the government of our country that gave them the permission and that this area now belongs to them,” he said. “They didn’t say with their mouths that they were Russian, but we knew they were Russian.”

After her husband refused to leave and quit his job at the mine, she said, he was shot to death along with seven of his colleagues.

“They came for our wealth, for our gold,” he said. “They have already started killing our husbands because of the wealth of our country.”

NBC News was unable to independently verify that account, and travel in the areas around the mines can be dangerous. In 2018, three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic while investigating Wagner, the group’s editor was quoted as saying by the Center for Investigation Control. (The news group, backed by leading anti-Putin activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was shut down after the journalists’ deaths.)

The US sanctions also say Wagner is denying Central African Republic government officials access to visit mining sites controlled by the mercenary group.

However, a UN report in February said killings and disappearances continued in Ndassima even after the rebels were removed.

No known entity Wagner has acknowledged ownership of the mine, but four senior Western diplomats said the Ndassima mine is fully controlled by the mercenary group. (The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.)

Meanwhile, some militants who have carried out attacks on civilians say they had direct orders to clear the areas in so-called “clearance operations”.

A former member of a pro-government group working with Wagner told Sentry that he was initially recruited to go on missions against the Séléka coalition.

But they soon targeted the civilian population, he said.

“We slaughtered many civilians,” he said. “This bothers me a lot. The Russians gave the orders, they say it is mandatory. There were many executions in the mines with the Russians, we killed the workers, we recovered the (mining) products.”

Civilian victims say the attacks went far beyond targeting armed insurgents, but aimed to terrorize the community and loot gold from workers and traders.

“Many young people have been kidnapped, raped and murdered… even I was raped by two Russians,” a miner told Sentry.

Those claims, which NBC News has not verified, are in line with accusations by US officials, who have labeled Wagner a transnational criminal organization for engaging in “serious criminal activities, including mass executions, rape, child abduction and physical abuse in Central Africa. Republic (CAR) and Mali”.

“Extractive, brutal, destructive”
Wagner’s influence stretches across the continent, according to Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.

“It’s an extractive, brutal, destructive influence” on African countries, said Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a prominent voice on Africa in Congress.

Wagner is often brought in to help African governments with insurgencies, particularly in countries where an elected government has been overthrown in a coup and the US is no longer a security partner, he said.

But the outfit has proven “unreliable” and “failed” in fighting terrorism and more focused on serving its own ends “to extract as much as they can in terms of money and mineral resources,” Coons said.

In recent years, Wagner has become “a predatory mercenary force” in poor, unstable countries in Africa, including the Central African Republic and Mali, he added.

Asked to respond to reports of atrocities committed by Russian fighters in Ndassima, presidential adviser Fidéle Gouandjika said in an interview at his home in Bangui that Russian soldiers were conducting security operations around the mine and sites to clear rebel groups. He denied reports of atrocities.

“They don’t steal, they don’t kill people,” he said.

A 2021 memo from the Central African Republic’s mines minister to the president, obtained by Sentry and reviewed by NBC News, announced that a Russian company was taking control of Ndassima and that Moscow’s national security contributions should be taken into account.

However, there is no official registration for the company in the country.

Satellite images of the site show that since 2021, when the rebels were cleared and the alleged atrocities took place, the mine has grown rapidly, with extensive mining pits, digging machines and a large processing facility.

A feasibility study commissioned by Axmin, a Canadian company that previously owned the mine, says the total production of the entire site could produce about 45 tonnes of gold in eight years, worth more than $2 billion at today’s prices.

Hans Merket, an analyst at the International Peace Information Service, an independent research institute in Belgium, said the processing plant is “state-of-the-art” but notes that it is still not nearly at full capacity.

Given the cost of operating in such a difficult environment, the mine could realistically bring in more than $100 million a year, he said, adding that it was clearly a long-term investment.

“You wouldn’t build this sophisticated processing unit to just work in a small area in the short term, this is a plan to do something bigger,” Merket said.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin declined to give further details about the group’s activities in the Central African Republic, including the use of Ndassima.

“I believe you have received enough information about the activities of PMC ‘Wagner’ in Africa from those you have already spoken to,” he said in a voice message sent as an email attachment. “As for other questions, we will discuss this matter when you start presenting them properly and not in a provocative manner.”

He added: “If by asking these questions you just meant to run and spit at me, then I suggest you come closer. And after that, try to understand whether your neck is in my hands or someone else’s.”


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