Russian Mercenaries Are Driving War Crimes in Africa, U.N. Says

An investigative report says that Russian operatives in the Central African Republic who had been billed as unarmed advisers are actually leading the fighting, including massacres of civilians.

Russian mercenaries deployed in one of Africa’s most fragile countries killed civilians, looted homes and shot dead worshipers at a mosque during a major military operation earlier this year, United Nations investigators have found.

The accusations of atrocities are documented in a report for the U.N. Security Council that was obtained by The New York Times and that details abuses tied to the contentious Russian involvement in the Central African Republic, an impoverished yet mineral-rich country that has been locked in civil war for nearly a decade.

Russian mercenaries, deployed in the guise of unarmed military advisers, led government forces into battle during an offensive to oust rebels from several towns in January and February, the report found. And as well as committing abuses, the Russian operatives established themselves in the major mining centers of a country with large reserves of diamonds.

Violations by the Russians and allied government troops “included cases of excessive force, indiscriminate killings, occupation of schools and looting on a large scale, including of humanitarian organizations,” said the investigative report, which was based on photographic evidence and confidential accounts by witnesses and local officials.

The Central African Republic turned to Russia in 2017 to wrest control of its diamond trade from the rebels, and to help end a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced over a million people since 2012.

The Kremlin offered to send unarmed military trainers to help train the Central African Army in a mission blessed by the United Nations, which carved out an exception to the arms embargo on the Central African Republic in place since 2013.

But it quickly became clear that the Russian trainers were in fact armed mercenaries, and the operation has evolved into a thinly veiled effort to build influence and strike business deals for the Kremlin in Africa, including lucrative diamond deals, to the benefit of businessmen including a close confidant of President Vladimir V. Putin.

The Russians have become deeply enmeshed in Central African politics and security. Russian bodyguards protect President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and a former Russian spy has served as his security adviser.

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