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While France announced this summer the reduction of its military presence in Mali, the Malian authorities are said to be in the process of signing an agreement with the Russian paramilitary group Wagner. Mali confirms ongoing talks. Who are these Russian militiamen, belonging to a private company but close to the Kremlin?
The NGO Amnesty International calls it “the secret army of Vladimir Poutine”. With 2,500 to 5,000 mercenaries, the Russian security group Wagner is close to signing an agreement with the Malian junta, according to Reuters.
The only certainty is that the Malian Ministry of Defense admitted, Tuesday, September 14, to AFP to conduct talks with this private military company, while insisting that “at this stage, nothing has been signed” . The possible recourse to the sulphurous company could lead to the deployment of a thousand Russian paramilitaries in Mali if this rapprochement is confirmed.
The arrival of these troops could call into question France’s commitment in Mali, where its soldiers have been fighting jihadist groups for eight years.
First appearing alongside secessionists from Donbass in Ukraine in 2014, Wagner has no legal existence in Russia, where private military companies are banned. But the presence of the group has been documented with the troops of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, in Libya alongside the forces of Marshal Khalifa Haftar or as “instructors” in the Central African Republic and elsewhere. Western media have also reported a presence in Mozambique, but also in Sudan during the crackdown on anti-Omar al-Bashir protesters in 2019.
Suspected of exaction in the Central African Republic
In the Central African Republic, explains Clément Di Roma, France 24’s correspondent in Bangui, “the Wagner group has been established for several years”. “Officially, Moscow has deployed Russian instructors in the country since 2018 to train the national army but behind it is the private mercenary company that operates, according to United Nations experts,” recalls the journalist. A UN group of experts was alarmed in March at the recruitment by the government of the Central African Republic of foreign private military and security companies, operating alongside government forces and accused of multiple abuses.
The Wagner group in the Central African Republic
“Since the electoral crisis in December 2020 and then the rebel attack on Bangui, the Central African state has received numerous reinforcements from the Wagner company. Up to 2,000 mercenaries are said to be present. They are still fighting alongside the national army. in the regions and since January, they have pushed the rebel coalition towards the borders in the north of the country. the national forces, their Russian allies and also the rebel troops, ”explains Clément Di Roma. The UN report, published at the end of June, in fact refers to “human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law”.
However, recalls the correspondent of France 24, Russia and the Central African government deny any Russian participation in the operations of the national forces.
A billionaire close to the Kremlin
The Wagner group, with which Moscow denies any link, is however suspected of belonging to a businessman close to the Kremlin, Evgueni Prigojine. This billionaire from Saint Petersburg, with a past as a prisoner for banditry, made his fortune in high-end catering, then by providing canteens for the Russian army. “Owner of luxury restaurants frequented in 2000 by Putin”, he becomes “the official caterer of the Kremlin”, tells the NGO Amnesty International which publishes a report on the paramilitary group. “He uses the rent to build a communications and media empire that the FBI accuses, in 2016, of having influenced the US presidential election in favor of Donald Trump through its troll factory, the notorious Internet Research Agency. is finally diversifying into mining, gas and oil in Africa and the Middle East “, indicates the NGO.
A recruiter for the Wagner group interviewed by France 24 in 2018 during an investigation into this mysterious organization had confessed, half-heartedly, to working for the Russian state. “The main objective of any private military enterprise is to defend the interests of its government if it cannot use its regular army. Our objectives are financial income and the possibility of taking control of a large market of resources. oil for our country “, explained the man at the head of one of these private groups, connected to Wagner.
According to Amnesty International, the organization takes its name from a private Russian military intelligence lieutenant-colonel, a certain Dimitri Utkine, nostalgic for the Nazis, who “chose ‘Wagner’ as a nom de guerre in homage to the composer favorite of Adolf Hitler “.
A complaint filed in Russia for torture in Syria
Amnesty international, but also other human rights NGOs such as the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) or the Russian association Memorial, accuse the Wagner company of committing torture, executions or rapes against civilians, in conflict zones.
For the first time, a complaint was filed in Russia on March 15 by three NGOs, including FIDH. They accuse members of the Wagner organization of torturing and beheading a suspected deserter from the Syrian army in 2017 while they were in Syria. In a video of the murder, revealed in 2018 by the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Russian-speaking men are seen hitting their victim with a hammer and then dismembering him, eventually spraying him with gasoline and setting his body on fire while his head was suspended from a post.
Since then, the Novaïa Gazeta has been seriously threatened and the complaint has remained unanswered for the moment.
With AFP and Reuters