Russian fighters clash with rebels as Kremlin tries to extend power in mineral rich country
Zeinab Mohammed Salih in Khartoum and Jason Burke
Thu 2 Feb 2023
A soldier from the government Central African territorial infantry battalion passes a Russian flag in Bangui in December 2022. Photograph: Barbara Debout/AFP/Getty Images
Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group have sustained heavy casualties in a new surge of fighting between government troops and rebels over the control of lucrative goldmines in Central African Republic (CAR).
The clashes come amid increasing instability in the anarchic, resource-rich country, which in recent years has become one of Russia’s main hubs of influence in sub-Saharan Africa.
The government offensive is led by some of the estimated 1,000 Wagner fighters stationed in CAR since 2018.
Wagner was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin, and has been deployed in about a dozen African countries as part of a Russian effort to project power on the continent and extract valuable resources. Last month, the US designated Wagner as a “significant transnational criminal organisation”, in part because of its increasing role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In CAR, Wagner fighters have defended the regime of Faustin-Archange Touadéra against successive rebel attacks on the capital, Bangui, and have been accused of human rights abuses.
The clashes started two weeks ago in a town near the border with Cameroon and Chad, pitting rebels against the Russians and the government troops. Violence flared again near the Sudanese border last weekend.
Between seven and 17 Wagner fighters were among the dozens of casualties, rebel sources claimed.
“We have lost two [killed] and many injured, but we defeated them and confiscated many military trucks … We staged an ambush and they fell into the trap,” said Ahmadou Ali, a senior leader in the rebel Coalition of Patriots for Change, in a phone interview.
Experts say reliable figures are difficult to establish, but that it is clear Wagner sustained relatively heavy casualties.
A source close to CAR’s national military said seven Russians had been killed in the ambush, one of the heaviest single losses by Wagner in Africa since battles against Islamist rebels in Mozambique in 2019.
Ali said CAR’s forces had not joined the fighting. “It was a battle between us and the Russians. They only used the government troops to legitimise things. The Russians have taken all over the country. They are everywhere: they guard the borders and you see them everywhere there are [valuable] resources. They stole all our resources,” he said.
Though Touadéra’s grip on power remains strong, the new violence suggests greater instability in CAR than in recent years, analysts said. The country, one of the poorest in the world, is facing economic collapse. A series of shifts in the alignment of regional powers in recent months have also raised tensions.
“The government in Bangui is totally running out of money,” said Enrica Picco, central Africa director for the international Crisis group. “Wagner don’t fully control all the mining sites and there is still fighting at several.
The group’s move [into frontier zones] changed the conflict dynamics because the rebel factions there united in the face of the common enemy to protect their mining revenues.”
Marie-Reine Hassen, a former diplomat and an opposition politician, said the president should give up power.
“He’s losing it and nobody wants him, I know he won’t do it, but the country is a mess. People are dying of hunger, no clean water, no electricity,” she said. Last year there was another round of clashes after Wagner fighters attacked artisanal goldmines along the CAR border with Sudan. Dozens of miners were killed in at least three attacks and witnesses interviewed by the Guardian described “massacres” by fighters they identified as being from Wagner, who swept through encampments full of migrant miners and mine workings during a six-week period.
Since Wagner arrived in CAR, it has tried to establish control over the flow of gold and diamonds as part of a broader push to secure resources. Analysts believe the group was initially promised gold and other mining concessions for its services in place of cash payments.
Such concessions have gained in importance as the Russian rouble has come under pressure since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Precious metals, especially gold, could help Vladimir Putin’s regime survive the economic impact of sanctions.
The new clashes are a further example of how intervention by Wagner is often linked to an increase in civilian deaths, despite the group’s boasts that they fight insurgents more effectively than UN peacekeepers or conventional troops deployed by former colonial powers such as France.
A study by the NGO the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project found that civilians were targeted in more than half of the political violence involving Wagner in CAR, and 71% in Mali, where the Russian mercenaries were deployed in late 2021 to reinforce a military-led regime as French troops withdrew.
“In both cases, this exceeds the rate of civilian targeting perpetrated by allied state forces, as well as the major insurgent groups operating in each context,” the NGO said.
Human Rights Watch, in a report in May, said forces in CAR who 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 and had no official insignia or other distinguishing features.
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