By CARLEY PETESCH
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Russian mercenaries allegedly executed, tortured and beat civilians in Central African Republic since 2019, according to a report released this week from Human Rights Watch.
Russian-speaking men carrying military-grade weapons and wearing military gear with no official markings set up a roadblock near the town of Bossangoa in July 2021, stopped men to beat them and shot at least eight dead, according to witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch.
The organization interviewed at least 40 people in person or by phone over a period of more than two years to document abuses likely carried out by mercenaries with the Russian-linked Wagner group. Another incident described by witnesses involved Russian-linked forces detaining and torturing people in Bambari in 2019.
The accusations by the international rights group come after United Nations experts in October called on Central African Republic’s government to end all relationships with “private military and security personnel, particularly the Wagner Group,” whose members they said have violently harassed and intimidated civilians, peacekeepers, journalists, aid workers and minorities and have committed rape and sexual violence against women, men and young girls.
France and the United States also accused Wagner “mercenaries” of massacres and executions of civilians in January.
The Wagner Group, which portrays itself as a private military contractor, sends mercenary forces — many former Russian soldiers — to several African countries and other places including Ukraine and the Mideast. Although the Kremlin officially denies any connection to Wagner, the group is strategically used to further President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to increase Russia’s influence and undermine democracy, analysts say.
Human Rights Watch called on the government of Central African Republic, the country’s Special Criminal Court or the International Criminal Court to investigate incidents in its report and other allegations of abuse by Russian-linked forces there.
“The Central African government has every right to request international security assistance, but it can’t allow foreign forces to kill and otherwise abuse civilians with impunity,” said Ida Sawyer, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.
“To demonstrate its respect for the rule of law, and to put an end to these abuses, the government should immediately investigate and prosecute all forces, including Russia-linked forces, responsible for murder, unlawful detention, and torture.”
The rights group says it has requested information from the government on inquiries into violence and any agreements with Russia, but has received no reply.
The Central African Republic government in 2021 did acknowledge the serious violation of human rights by Russians, which forced Vladimir Titorenko to leave his post as Russian ambassador to the country. It also said it would set up a special commission of inquiry to establish responsibility, but no findings have been published.
Russian security has helped protect President Faustin-Archange Touadera for years, with Russia’s former member of internal security services Valery Zakharov serving as an adviser in Bangui, the capital, on military, political and economic matters. While the government denies hiring mercenaries from Wagner, Zakharov is a “key figure” in Wagner’s command structure, according to European Union documents.
Experts estimate there are between 1,000 and 2,000 personnel in Central African Republic.
The country’s ties to the Russian group have also begun to affect its financial contributions.
Central African Republic Budget Minister Herve Ndoba said Tuesday after a visit to Washington that the country should not expect contributions from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
“The future seems uncertain for our finances and the national economy,” he said.
The two institutions want assurances that their money will not be used to finance the Russian paramilitary group. Last year, France cut its aid to the country because of an anti-French agenda it said was being guided by Russians there.
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