Troops trained by the European Union in central Africa are now under the command of Russian mercenaries regarded as the proxy private army of the Kremlin, European mission commanders have admitted.
The EU suspended its military training mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) after at least one battalion it had produced ended up led by the Wagner Group whose fighters have been accused by the UN of committing atrocities in the shoring up of President Touadéra’s regime.
“The temporary suspension of our operations aims to avoid any overlapping with these mercenaries and ensure they do not use the Central African soldiers we have trained,” said General Jacques Langlade de Montgros, the commander of the EU training mission, citing concerns over breaches of international humanitarian laws.
Dozens of the EU’s 500 military and civilian advisers have been sent home until “we have assurances that the [CAR] soldiers will not be used by the Wagner mercenaries,” the general added.
EU military trainers have been in the CAR since 2014, the year after President Bozizé’s ousting threw the former French colony into turmoil. Wagner, a group of Russian military contractors, signed a deal with Touadéra in 2018 to shield him against rebels seeking to overturn disputed election results.
Despite being rich in natural resources such as uranium and diamonds, the CAR is ranked by the UN as the world’s second poorest country. A recent EU foreign service report, published by the Brussels website EU observer, concluded “predation” of mineral riches appeared to be the main objective of Russia’s presence in the country. “RU [Russia] elements have also started to incur the vast natural reserves/environmental protection areas in the east of CAR like Chinko … for yet unknown purposes,” the report said.
The military training suspension came after the imposition of sanctions by the US and European foreign ministers on Wagner, which is believed to be controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian billionaire with close links to President Putin. The EU accused the organisation of carrying out clandestine operations on the Kremlin’s behalf.
The Russian deployment to the CAR has given Moscow a firm foothold in Africa as it attempts to revive the Soviet-era influence. In recent years Putin has signed bilateral military cooperation agreements with more than 20 African countries.
Wagner’s parallel expansion is now estimated at 10,000 men. Links to civilian killings, gang rape and torture in the CAR have triggered alarm in the EU about the risk of local troops from its training missions in Mali, Niger and Mozambique falling under the Russians’ control.
The United States said it was “alarmed” by reports that authorities in Mali had hired Wagner to plug gaps from France’s reduction of its Operation Barkhane, a 5,000-strong counter-insurgency force military operation to battle Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
“Wagner forces, known for their destabilising activities and human rights abuses will not bring peace to Mali, but rather will destabilise the country further,” Ned Price, the State Department spokesman said.
Mali, which has had two coups in the past year, has become the centre of the Islamist battleground in the Sahel, a huge arid band south of the Sahara, since the US-backed collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya a decade ago.
France has long-standing military ties across Francophone Africa and analysts regard Wagner’s deployments as part of Moscow’s strategy to sideline Paris by capitalising on pockets of conflict and growing regional resentment towards the former colonial power.
It was after France pulled troops out of the CAR in 2016, following a three-year mission, that Bangui first turned to Russia for support.
The reported deal between Mali’s junta led by Assimi Goita, a colonel who spent time in a Russian military college and Wagner for a 1,000-strong force is worth $10 million per month, money that could be used to support Mali’s armed forces or improve public services, Price’s statement added.
Moscow has admitted to having 1,135 “unarmed instructors” in the CAR, though none involved in fighting or mining.