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Wagner Group sustains significant losses in clashes with Central African Republic rebels

Russian mercenaries being pushed back in Central African Republic, according to evidence obtained by Middle East Eye
Russian officers from Wagner group provide presidential security in Bangui, July 2023 (Reuters)
A Russian officer from the Wagner Group provides presidential security in Bangui, July 2023 (Reuters)

Editor's note: This article contains graphic and distressing images.

The Wagner Group has sustained significant losses in the Central African Republic, according to images and video footage obtained by Middle East Eye.

The CAR government is being supported by the Russian military group and Rwandan soldiers as it engages in a bloody conflict with rebel forces. 

The pictures and videos seen by MEE show rebel forces surrounding a dead Russian soldier, with stashes of money and weapons visible, as well as IDs. 

Opposition sources told MEE they had killed other Russian fighters in the clashes, but that Wagner had been able to evacuate the bodies of those slain fighters. 

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The military group has been weakened by disputes with the Russian government in the wake of the death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was killed in a plane crash on 23 August.

Wagner is struggling to protect its presence in CAR, with opposition sources in the African country telling MEE that Russian fighters were being redeployed and replaced by Rwandans.

According to the sources, fighting has spread to the east, north and west of the country, with armed opposition groups advancing in some regions, most significantly around the northeastern town of Ndele and other areas known for their gold and diamond mines, which are protected by Wagner operatives.

Hundreds of Wagner mercenaries landed in CAR in 2018 in support of President Faustin-Archange Touadera, under the terms of a defence agreement with Russia

At the end of 2020, with Touadera threatened by a rebel offensive on the capital, Bangui, hundreds more joined them. The leader became known as “President Wagner” as a result, but as Africa Confidential recently reported, his attachment to Moscow has been weakening. 

After years of tension between CAR and former colonial power France, Touadera met his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday, as part of what Paris referred to as a “resumption of dialogue and positive dynamics in bilateral relations”. 

Sudan paramilitary funnelling weapons into Central African Republic, UN report reveals
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Nevertheless, Touadera told Macron that his partnership with Russia was “expected to continue”, and the African leader was in need of Wagner support to ensure victory - secured with 95 percent of the vote - in a July referendum that granted him the right to run for a third presidential term. 

In June, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on four companies connected to Wagner and to gold and diamond operations in CAR. 

According to MEE sources in Sudan and CAR, the Russian military group is also supporting the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which has been at war with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) since April.

Wagner has been involved in the transit of weapons across the border into the Darfur region of western Sudan, with opposition sources in CAR stressing that RSF soldiers have also crossed into eastern CAR from Sudan.

Dead soldier

The pictures and videos shared with MEE showed soldiers from the rebel Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC), which is part of the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), standing around the body of a Russian soldier.

According to CAR opposition sources, it was recorded after aggressive clashes between rebels and government forces backed by Wagner in the village of Bnaga Bingi in the northwest of the country.

The pictures and videos also showed the rebels surrounding the body of the Russian soldier after taking off his clothes and sitting beside him with their guns. 

Another picture shows a uniform resembling that of the Wagner military, with ID cards believed to belong to the mercenary group. 

One video shows CAR rebels dancing, singing and happily shouting next to the body of the slain Russian. 

Another shows a Russian soldier killed in a forest, with one of the rebels calling for the mass killing of Russian soldiers in the region.

Wagner withdrawal

Abdu Buda, a UPC spokesperson, said that widespread fighting between rebel forces and Wagner mercenaries had erupted over the past week, with dozens of Russians killed in the clashes.

Sources in the CAR’s armed opposition told MEE that they were advancing against the government and Wagner forces in the north, east and west of the country.

Buda also said that Wagner is gradually withdrawing - or at least redeploying - in the Central African Republic, following disputes with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government and the death of Prigozhin.

Wagner stash
Part of a stash of weapons, cash and IDs taken from Wagner fighters in the CAR (MEE)

“We believe that Wagner, which gave its full support to the government in Bangui, is currently trying to practise a gradual withdrawal from the country because of its international problems,” Buda told MEE.

“We have seen them withdraw from some areas, where they have been replaced by government forces or Rwandan mercenaries brought in recently.

“We don’t know whether this is a tactic of redeployment by the enemy or if it’s a real withdrawal, as we have seen thousands of Rwandan forces, some of whom are from the Rwandan army and some of whom are mercenaries,” Buda added.

The UPC spokesperson said that fighting had intensified and that opposition forces intended to march on Bangui and “bring down the government and expel all the mercenaries from our country”.

Regional struggle 

The presence of Wagner forces in the Central African Republic has enabled Bangui to help Sudan’s RSF across the border.

Buda confirmed that the Russian group and the CAR government had provided widespread military assistance to the Sudanese paramilitary, including large quantities of anti-aircraft guns and other kinds of weapons.

Despite reports from MEE and other publications about military support coming from the United Arab Emirates and across the border from CAR, the RSF has continued to deny that it is receiving any external help in its fight against the Sudanese army. 

'There is wide regional competition between France and Russia in the region, including CAR, Sudan, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Gabon'

NGO source

“Wagner and the CAR government - and this may be part of the Wagner withdrawal tactic - are keen to secure the situation of their ally in Sudan, which is the RSF, so they have handed huge quantities of weapons to the RSF through the Sudanese-CAR borders,” Buda said. 

According to NGO sources working in CAR, the ties between the RSF in Sudan and Wagner in CAR are part of a wider regional competition between the West and Russia, which extends across the Sahel region and into other parts of Africa. 

“There is wide regional competition between France and Russia in the region, including CAR, Sudan, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Gabon and other west and central African countries in a movement that stands against the French influence in the region,” said a source from an international organisation, who asked not to be named because they are not authorised to talk to the media. 

“We knew that Russia was supporting the CAR government and the RSF, while France was indirectly standing behind the CAR opposition and the democratic groups that stand against the series of military coups in the region,” another NGO source said.

Touadera, though, has now met with Macron, with Paris and Bangui speaking of relaunching bilateral relations. 

CAR rebels stand over the body of a slain Wagner soldier (MEE)

Rwanda, a regional player whose influence in CAR is growing as it sends troops to the country and picks up mining concessions and agricultural projects, maintains good relations with the West and Russia.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has agreed a deal with the British government to host migrants and asylum seekers deported from the UK, while Rwandan troops have protected oil workers from the French company Total in Mozambique. 

In eastern Congo, Amnesty found that fighters from the M23 rebel group, which is sponsored by Rwanda, had been guilty of summary execution and the rape of dozens of women. 

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