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Russian mercenaries near Sudan accused of killing hundreds as African gold rush intensifies

Survivors of brutal attack in Central African Republic make it to Sudan, where they tell MEE the Wagner Group were responsible
A member of the close protection unit for Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera, composed by Russian private security company operatives (AFP)
By in
Um Dafuq, Sudan

A recent spate of attacks purportedly carried out by Russian armed groups in a gold-mining area of Central African Republic (CAR) has left hundreds dead and sent thousands more fleeing over the border into Sudan

The deadly violence, attributed by eyewitnesses to Wagner Group mercenaries, whose reported chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is further evidence of geostrategic manoeuvring and an unfolding gold rush in this part of Africa, with Moscow set against the United Nations and France.

In a series of assaults that took place between 14 and 18 March, Russian armed groups killed civilians from Sudan, Chad, Niger, and the CAR, survivors told Middle East Eye. 

The attacks took place 200km west of the border with Sudan and 400km east of the CAR's capital Bangui, eyewitnesses said, in an area known as Andaha.

CAR WAGNER
A Wagner Group truck in the looted Central African Army (FACA) base of Bangassou, February 2021 (AFP)

Thousands have fled the area for Sudan, with small-scale gold miners losing millions of US dollars worth of gold and property in total. 

Survivors told MEE they believed the perpetrators belonged to the Wagner Group, which is widely thought to have a presence in Sudan, as well as CAR, for a number of years. 

With the current war in Ukraine creating an acute need in Moscow for money and gold reserves, monitors believe Russian forces are aiming to expel miners from the region in order to then smuggle gold and diamonds back to Russia. Wagner Group fighters have also been pictured in eastern Ukraine. 

Russia's ruble plummetted after the invasion began and sanctions began to be laid on by Western powers. But captial control measures have helped stabilise the currency, with some speculating that gold reserves were being used by the Russian government to prop up the ruble.

The military government in Sudan has since the 25 October coup that brought it to power looked to strengthen and build on pre-existing ties with Moscow.

Khartoum’s de facto deputy leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemeti, spent a week in Russia at the end of February and the beginning of March, defending Putin’s assault on Ukraine and saying he was open to Moscow establishing a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. 

Hundreds killed and thousands displaced

When 35-year-old Adam Zakaria and 20 members of his family left the gold mining area of Darfur because of insecurity in the Sudanese region, heading to CAR in search of more gold, he didn’t think he would end up losing at least six members of his family and most of his money.  

"The situation had, since 2018, been very good,” Zakaria told MEE in Um Dafuq, the first entry point across the border in Sudan from CAR.

“We started to buy or rent lands, looking for gold. We pocketed thousands of US dollars every month, working alongside CAR citizens and others from Chad and Niger. The area of Andaha is very rich in gold. All the miners were happy.” 

'What we saw was very brutal and bloody... slaughtering the traders and miners, as well looting the gold and money'

- Adam Zakaria

Zakaria said more than 50 Sudanese people, including six members of his family, were killed by Russian forces in the attacks. By way of corroborating evidence, MEE was shown graphic photos of a number of slain victims.

The Russians, Zakaria said, used heavy weapons, including attack helicopters, tanks and armed four-wheel-drive vehicles. 

"What we saw was very brutal and bloody. They used these aggressive forces and weapons against the civilians, including slaughtering the traders and miners, as well looting the gold and money," he said. 

The Sudanese believe the Wagner Group was behind the attacks, adding that Russian companies “want to expel traditional miners so that they can control the gold mining areas in CAR – and then in the entire Sahel region – themselves".

“We lost hundreds of victims who fled the area as the Russian forces tracked the displaced people until they were close to the borders of Sudan,” he said.

A fellow Sudanese victim of the attack, 30-year-old Zakaria Mohamed Abdallah, also lost thousands of dollars and many kilos of gold.  He told MEE that miners are active in collecting gold as well as diamonds in the area of Silonka, which is about 15km from Andaha.

"That was the most aggressive scene I ever saw in my life,” he said. “They slaughtered everybody. I saw at least 20 bodies stranded randomly. They looted us as we fled using motorbikes to cross the border to Um Dafuq.

“I lost almost everything, including the money and the gold that I collected over the past few months."
 
Abdallah accused Sudanese forces of opening the door to a Russian presence in the region, saying also that the Sudanese military were camped on the border with CAR and that they mistreated him and the other fleeing miners.

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Haroun Adam, another victim of the attack, said that Russian mercenaries, alongside some fighters from CAR’s Banda people, had attacked gold miners in different locations in and around Andaha, in the country’s northeast, killing dozens of people from Sudan and Chad who are working there.

He told MEE that there is wide-ranging conflict over the control of gold mining between the Seleka and anti-Balaka, two rebel groups that have been fighting each other in CAR for a number of years but which are now hobbled by investigations into their abuses and calls for trials. 

Nevertheless, this conflict, Adam said, was impacting the entire region, with Russian forces currently supporting the CAR government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera - who in turn is now almost completely dependent on Moscow - and looking to empty the area of foreigners and locals alike. 

As reported by Africa Confidential, clashes between the Wagner Group and the UN’s mission to CAR, Minusca, have worsened of late, with the Russian-inspired detention of four French soldiers at Bangui airport and the departure of Mankeur Ndiaye, Minusca’s head, prompting a reckoning. 

Last March, Ndiaye visited Moscow to complain about Wagner, but received no assurances. On his return to CAR he said publicly that the private military group was a problem for the UN as well as France.

Wagner and its supporters responded, organising demonstrations against Minusca and spreading accusations online that UN employees were engaging in smuggling, rape, trafficking children, and any number of other crimes. 

Competition, violence, disinformation

Moniem Madibo, a local analyst, told MEE the conflict over resources – particularly gold - in the region had increased since 2017, when former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir allowed the Russians to mine on the border of Sudan and CAR. 

“The Russian armed groups have had a presence for the mining in the area,” Madibo said. “The government in Sudan enabled the Russians to have a presence in the country and the government in CAR has also enabled the Russians in order to help Bangui in its fighting against the rebel Seleka militia,” he explained.

Madibo told MEE that the competition between the French and Russians is ongoing and that he expected it to escalate as Moscow wants to secure large amounts of gold in the context of the war in Ukraine. 

“The Russians are expanding their influence in the region with many reports from eyewitnesses confirming that the company of Wagner is expelling the miners and seizing the entire area,” he said. 

'The government in Sudan enabled the Russians to have a presence in the country'

- Moniem Madibo, analyst

Russia is believed by some to have outsourced the advancement of its strategic interests across Africa to Wagner.  “It is an expansion on the cheap, with the mercenary force allying itself with corrupt, autocratic, and unpopular military regimes, and capturing a sizable part of the natural wealth in these countries in payment for its security services to their unpopular rulers,” Sudanese pro-democracy campaigner Suleiman Baldo told MEE.

Baldo noted that Sudan’s military administration sided with Russia, but added that Moscow is not able to assist Sudan because of the current international economic crisis and the sanctions imposed on it following the invasion of Ukraine. 

“The military regime of General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan and Hemeti chose to openly side with Russia at a time when its forces were invading a sovereign country in Europe, sending a message to the rest of the world that the junta remains intent on violently suppressing the Sudanese population's demands for a civilian-led transition to democracy,” Baldo said. 

“In the short term, Russia will have little means to assist the economic crisis in Sudan, beyond the continued supply of weapons to the army and the security and political services that Wagner Group continues to provide both to the army and the Rapid Support Forces.” 

Baldo added that disinformation experts working for the Wagner Group “continue to support the claims of the military establishment in Sudan by creating manipulated news platforms on social media, that are repeatedly blocked by Facebook because they represent unlawful interference by a foreign power in the internal affairs of a country.” 

Sudan’s foreign ministry recently denied that the Wagner Group had a presence in the country. 

Responding to a statement by western diplomats, the Sudanese ministry said that “they alleged that the Russian Wagner security company was present in Sudan and carrying out training, mining, and other illegal activities... which the government of Sudan denies completely.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.