Raising the alarm The UN suspects Russian military ‘instructors’ of major human rights violations in the Central African Republic

Refugees and UN peacekeepers on the outskirts of the city of Bangassou in the Central African Republic. February 3, 2021.Alexis Huguet / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Russian military “instructors” assisting government forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) are facing allegations of committing major human rights and international humanitarian law violations. Citing eyewitness accounts and internal reports from a UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries, a new investigation from Radio France Internationale describes dozens of abuses allegedly involving these Russian “instructors,” including extrajudicial killings, rapes, arbitrary detentions, and other crimes. The Russian Embassy in the CAR has dismissed the UN working group’s conclusions as “speculation.”

Russian military “instructors,” who are fighting alongside government troops in the Central African Republic (CAR), are facing allegations of killing civilians, looting, and committing gang rapes. A new investigation published by Radio France Internationale (RFI) cites accounts from local residents and internal documents from a UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries as evidence of these abuses.

The UN working group officially raised the alarm on March 31, due to the Central African authorities’ widespread use of private military companies (PMCs). The UN’s press release mentions three Russian entities in particular: the Wagner PMC, which is allegedly linked to notorious Russian oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin; Sewa Security Services, a company believed to be a Wagner PMC branch in the CAR; as well as Lobaye Invest SARLU, which is formally a local mining company established in 2017.

According to RFI’s sources, in total, between 800 and 2,000 Russian mercenaries are involved in the civil war between the republic’s government and rebel groups, which began in 2012. The Russian Embassy in the CAR acknowledges the presence of 535 Russian military “instructors,” who Moscow’s diplomats claim aren’t directly involved in the hostilities, except in instances when they come under attack.

However, many in the CAR believe that it was the Russians who played a decisive role in the government’s counteroffensive in 2020–2021, allowing them to recapture most of the country’s major cities, RFI notes. 

Internal UN documents obtained by RFI describe hundreds of cases involving human rights and international humanitarian law violations, committed by CAR troops together with their Russian allies (or by the Russian nationals on their own) between January 1 and mid-April 2021. Among other crimes, the reports list 26 extrajudicial executions, five rapes, and 27 cases involving arbitrary detention and imprisonment. 

One example reports that after the CAR’s army and the Russian “instructors” recaptured the town of Bambari in December 2020, they broke into a mosque where both militants and civilians (including women and children) were hiding. According to eyewitness accounts, once inside, the Russians began “shooting in all directions” and then executed three young people. They also carried out mass arbitrary arrests in Bambari after recapturing the town; relatives of the detainees told RFI that their family members went missing after being detained. 

During another incident in December 2020, the Russians opened fire on a truck that failed to stop at a checkpoint on the road leading to the country’s capital, Bangui. According to the UN report, three civilians were killed and 15 more were injured as a result. An eyewitness who was inside the truck and received four gunshot wounds later stated that the vehicle failed to stop in time due to a mechanical issue.

The UN also documented several cases of sexual violence, which reportedly involved Russian nationals. A 20-year-old CAR resident told RFI that on February 15, several Russian-speaking men tricked her into getting into a car and took her to an unknown location, where they raped her throughout the night. “They tortured me like an animal. I don’t understand. I’m a person just like they are,” the woman said. “I thought the Russians were here to help us.”

Local residents also accuse the Russians of looting and setting fire to houses. “They even kill pigs. They don’t buy food. When they want to eat, they kill the animals that people keep,” a local resident told RFI. In the town of Benzambé — the birthplace of former CAR President and rebel leader François Bozizé — 120 houses were burned down, including the family home of the ex-president. “The Russians burned down all of the homes,” a Benzambé resident said.

As RFI notes, the fact that the CAR is under a state of emergency and has related prohibitions on movement around the country makes it difficult to conduct investigations and collect evidence. In addition, it’s impossible to criticize the actions of the Russians in the CAR without risking being labelled an opponent of the government or even a rebel supporter. 

RFI was unable to obtain comments from the three Russian companies listed in the investigation. The Russian Embassy in the CAR described the UN working group’s conclusions as “speculation” and urged it “to focus on investigating crimes committed by mercenaries from armed groups.” The embassy also said that the “Russian instructors aren’t mercenaries,” since they came to the CAR at the official request of the Central African authorities and after notifying the UN Security Council. 

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Story by Pyotr Lokhov

Translated by Eilish Hart


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