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Wagner’s Russian mercenaries face uncertainty after their leader’s alleged death in a plane crash

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The accident raises questions about the future of Prigozhin’s private army, which fought alongside Russian troops in Ukraine before its brief uprising against military rulers in Moscow.

Russian authorities have spoken of the need to wait for DNA test results to confirm Prigozhin’s death, but Putin expressed his condolences after the plane fell from the sky. The Russian leader also ordered Wagner fighters to sign an oath of allegiance to the Russian state, according to a decree published Friday evening on the Kremlin’s website and effective immediately.

The order follows the Kremlin’s Friday denial of suggestions by Western officials and the media that Wagner’s leader could have been killed on Putin’s orders.

In African countries where Wagner provided security against extremist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, officials and commentators predicted that Russia would likely maintain a presence, placing the mercenaries under new leadership.

Others, however, say Prigozhin has forged deep personal ties that Moscow may struggle to quickly replace.

Africa is of vital importance to Russia – economically and politically.

This summer, Wagner helped secure a national referendum in the Central African Republic that consolidated presidential power; it is a key partner of the Malian army in the fight against armed rebels; and he contacted Niger’s military junta, which is claiming his services following a coup.

Expanding ties and undermining Western influence in Africa is a top priority as the Kremlin seeks new allies in its war in Ukraine, where Wagner’s forces also helped win a key battle. Africa’s 54 countries constitute the largest electoral bloc in the UN, and Moscow has worked actively to rally their support for its invasion.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, said Friday that Wagner’s forces “are destabilizing, and we have encouraged countries in Africa to condemn their presence as well as their actions.”

The Republican Front in the Central African Republic, an ally of the country’s ruling party, on Thursday reiterated its support for Russia and Wagner, saying they were “determined to fight alongside the African people in their struggle for self-determination. “.

Wagner’s forces served as President Faustin Archange Touadera’s personal bodyguards, protecting the capital Bangui from rebel threats and helping Touadera win the July 30 constitutional referendum that could extend his rule indefinitely.

Central African activist and blogger Christian Aimé Ndotah said the country’s cooperation with Russia would not be affected by the new leadership of Wagner, who has been “well established” in the country for years.

But some in the Central African Republic denounce the mercenaries, and the UN peacekeeping mission there criticized them in 2021 for human rights violations.

“The security of a state is its sovereignty. We cannot entrust the security of a State to a group of mercenaries”, declared Jean Serge Bokassa, former Minister of Public Security.

Nathalia Dukhan, senior researcher at The Sentry, a Washington-based political organization, predicted that the Kremlin would try to push Africa closer to its orbit.

“Wagner was an effective tool for Russia to expand its influence in an efficient and brutal manner,” she said. “Amid all the turmoil between Putin and Prigozhin, Operation Wagner in Central Africa has only deepened, with increased direct involvement from the Russian government. »

High-ranking Wagner operatives have built relationships in Mali and the Central African Republic and understand the terrain, said Lou Osborn of All Eyes on Wagner, a project focused on the group.

“They have a good reputation, which they can sell to another Russian competitor. It wouldn’t be surprising if a new organization took them over,” Osborn said, pointing out that Russian military contractors in Ukraine, such as Redut and Convoy, have recently expressed a desire to do business in Africa.

Redut was created by the Russian Defense Ministry, which sought to bring Wagner under its control. After the June mutiny, Putin said the mercenaries could sign contracts with the ministry and continue to serve under one of the group’s top commanders, Andrei Troshev. It is not known exactly how many soldiers accepted, but the media speak of a few thousand.

The Kremlin may still struggle to maintain the strong presence in Africa that Prigozhin helped establish.

Putin’s former speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov said Prigozhin may have been allowed to continue his later activities because Russian authorities needed to find people to take over his work.

“It took time to create new channels, new control mechanisms over these projects,” he said. “And it is not a fact that they succeeded. It is possible that they failed and that the Kremlin lost some of these projects.”

The UK Ministry of Defense said Prigojine’s disappearance “would almost certainly have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the Wagner Group”.

“His personal attributes of hyperactivity, exceptional daring, results-seeking and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and is unlikely to be matched by any successor,” it read.

On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on Wagner’s future.

For Prigozhin, who founded Wagner in 2014, his missions were not simply about increasing Russia’s global influence. Its contractors in Syria, Libya, Sudan and elsewhere have exploited the mineral and energy wealth of these countries to enrich themselves.

Central African MP and opposition leader Martin Ziguélé said Wagner was active in gold mining, timber and other industries – without paying taxes.

“We can only conclude that this is looting,” he said.

Prigozhin struck a deal with Putin after the rebellion that saw Wagner’s mercenaries move into Belarus in exchange for an amnesty and has since spoken on several occasions about expanding his activities in Africa. He was seen courting African officials at a recent summit in St. Petersburg.

He was quick to hail last month’s military coup that toppled Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum. The junta contacted Wagner, but the group’s response was unclear. So far, there has been no visible presence of Russian mercenaries in the West African country, apart from crowds waving Russian and Wagner flags during pro-coup protests.

Although US officials have not confirmed that Russia or Wagner played a role in ousting Bazoum, there are concerns that the Kremlin could exploit him to weaken Western positions in West Africa, where mercenaries de Wagner are already active in Mali and are suspected of being present in Burkina Faso. .

Some in Niger believe Prigojine’s presumed death will not stop Russia from trying to expand its influence.

“Our belief is that Russia wants to have a base here and be popular. It’s obvious they want to be here,” Baraou Souleimanin, a tailor in Niamey, Niger’s capital, told The Associated Press. Since the coup, he said he has sewn more than 150 Russian flags in a month.

“We pray that Allah strengthens the relationship with (Wagner) to continue the agreement. If the relationship is good and solid, it is possible that they will continue the agreement even after his death,” he said on Thursday.

In neighboring Mali, a military junta that took power in 2020 expelled French troops, diplomats and media and ordered the end of a decade-long UN peacekeeping mission.

Although not officially recognized by Malian authorities, Wagner’s forces operate in the rural north, where rebel and extremist groups have eroded state power and plagued communities.

Human Rights Watch says the Malian army, along with suspected Wagner mercenaries, committed summary executions, looting, enforced disappearances, and other abuses.

“What we have experienced through Wagner is the massacre of our people,” said Ali Nouhoum Diallo, former president of the National Assembly.

Youba Khalifa, a resident of Timbuktu, said Wagner’s presence in Mali would not change without Prigojine because “they will replace him with another leader”.

Although Prigozhin told his troops in Belarus that their new mission would be in Africa, several thousand of them trained the Belarusian army near the Polish border, prompting Warsaw to reinforce its forces there. There were, however, signs that the mercenaries were preparing to retreat to Russia.

The Belarusian Hajun Group, a group that monitors Russian troops in Belarus, said Thursday that satellite images showed more than a third of the tents at a Wagner camp had been dismantled, a sign of a possible exodus. President Alexander Lukashenko nevertheless insisted that his country would welcome around 10,000 troops.

This arouses strong objections from the Belarusian opposition, which demands their withdrawal.

“Prigozhin’s death should put an end to Wagner’s presence in Belarus, which would reduce the threat to our country and its neighbors,” exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told the AP.

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