By Jason Burke and Zeinab Mohammed Salih
Dozens of people said to have been killed in attacks allegedly involving Wagner Group fighters.
Goldmining in Central African Republic. There have been reports of attacks on several mines across CAR. Photograph: © Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images.
Russian mercenaries have mounted a series of bloody attacks on artisanal mines in the lawless border zones between Sudan and Central African Republic (CAR) in an effort to plunder the region’s valuable gold trade, witnesses and experts have said.
Dozens of miners are thought to have died in at least three major attacks this year allegedly involving mercenaries working for the Wagner Group, a private military company that has been linked to the Kremlin by western officials. There are also reports of further attacks on mines in at least six other places across CAR.
Witnesses interviewed in Sudan by the Guardian described “massacres” by fighters they identified as being from Wagner who swept through encampments full of migrant miners and mine workings between the north-eastern town of Am Daga and the frontier over a six-week period.
The fighters shot indiscriminately with automatic weapons, smashed equipment, destroyed buildings and stole motorbikes, they said. One described a mass grave containing more than 20 victims. Others spoke of hundreds dead or injured.
The accounts have been corroborated by local civil society groups and international officials and are seen as “credible” in western European capitals, where security services are monitoring Wagner’s operations.
The three biggest incidents took place on 13 March, 15 April and 24 May. Most of the victims were migrant workers from Sudan and Chad working in the goldmines, though some local civilians are also thought to have died.
Mohammed Zain Mohamed Wadi, 42, said he was attacked in an area called Jabal a-Nar, about 50 miles west of the frontier with Sudan, by Russians, some in armoured vehicles, and soldiers from CAR in pickup trucks or on motorbikes. Wadi said he helped to bury 21 of the victims, all Sudanese. Another six people were also killed.
“I’ll never go back … actually I don’t think anybody remained … The goldmines there have been taken over by the Russians,” he said.
Jamaa Mohamed al-Habou, 35, was among those who were attacked in the last week of May in the village of Sankillio, near Andaha. He said he and other miners were “chased off by Wagner” and that many were killed during a daylong assault. The 35-year-old fled into nearby woodland, abandoning a metal detector. Others left behind motorbikes and other vehicles, which were seized by the attackers. Members of armed groups opposing the government were also targeted, Habou said.
A third witness said as many as 70 people, including his brother and six relatives, died when Russians and Africans attacked the mine where he was working in March. “I had to run for seven days. I saw them coming … to kill and rob everybody their hands could reach,” said Adam Zakaria, 36, from Neyala in South Darfur.
He described the Wagner group as white people wearing grey military uniforms, travelling in pickup trucks, armoured vehicles and helicopters. “When we fled their attacks initially, we thought we were safe, but suddenly on our way they trapped us and started beating us, and near to Am Daga they laid another trap where they killed 21 people. We had to bury them in one big grave,” Zakaria said.
Since arriving in CAR four years ago to defend the government against rebels, the Wagner Group has made efforts to establish control over the flow of gold and diamonds. Analysts believe the group was initially promised gold and other mining concessions in place of cash payments for its services.
Such concessions have gained in importance as the rouble has come under pressure since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Precious metals, especially gold, could help Vladimir Putin’s regime survive the economic impact of sanctions.
Analysts said recent attacks appeared to be more like raids for plunder rather than efforts to secure and extract resources over months or years. “There are regular reports of attackers arriving by helicopter, killing artisanal goldminers and rebels … [then] taking everything they can and then leaving. Sometimes they come back again a month or so later and do the same thing. It is nothing to do with securing a mining site,” said Pauline Bax, the deputy Africa director of the International Crisis Group.
Wagner has also been blamed for attacks on goldminers elsewhere in CAR, and there are reports of recent incursions across the porous frontier between CAR and Sudan as fighters identified as from Wagner pursue fleeing miners.
Wagner has been active in a dozen countries across Africa, and has been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses on the continent. Western officials allege the Kremlin is using Wagner to advance Russian economic and political interests across Africa and elsewhere.
Sorcha MacLeod, the chair of the United Nations working group on the use of mercenaries, said the presence of groups such as Wagner prolonged conflicts, led to higher levels of violence and often brought widespread human rights abuses. “Wagner is doubling down in the Sahel and is not going away any time soon,” she said.
In a report in May, Human Rights Watch said forces in CAR whom witnesses identified as Russian appeared to have beaten, tortured and killed civilians there since 2019. It said Russia-linked forces in CAR did not wear a designated uniform with official insignia or other distinguishing features.
On 15 April the UN announced it would investigate the circumstances in which at least 10 people were killed in north-east CAR, with some initial reports alleging Russian forces may have been involved.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close ally of Putin, has been accused by the US, EU and others of financing Wagner. The Guardian approached Prigozhin seeking his reaction to evidence implicating Wagner fighters in massacres in Mali earlier this year. In response he said he had “repeatedly said that the Wagner Group does not exist” and that he had “nothing to do with it”, adding that “a dying-out western civilisation” would be defeated by Russia.
CAR’s former prime minister Henri-Marie Dondra has said there is no contract between his country and “a Russian private security company … only a military cooperation agreement with Russia”.
A leaked November 2021 EU report on CAR said: “Today, most [national army] units are operating under direct command or supervision by WG [Wagner Group] mercenaries.”
CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world, and is facing economic collapse. About 1,200 Wagner fighters are thought to be deployed there.
© 2022 The Guardian