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Africa Last Updated: Feb 7, 2024 - 1:42:03 PM

Putin’s Private Army Accused of Massacring Dozens to Seize Gold Mine
By Philip Obaji Jr., The Daily Beast, 24/12/23
Jan 3, 2024 - 1:41:09 PM

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Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin may be dead, but witnesses say Russian paramilitaries in the Central African Republic slaughtered dozens of people to secure access to a gold mine.

It was about 5 p.m. on a very warm Sunday evening in mid-September in Koki, a small town in the northwest of the Central African Republic (CAR), when the servant of a local traditional chief arrived at the home of a man we will call Alioum*, to invite him for a meeting.

It was not the first time Alioum, who is the leader of one of more than a dozen vigilante groups recognized by the community, would be summoned by a local leader. But this time he was called to the gold mine on the outskirts of the town.

“Because this meeting was happening in an isolated area, I smelled trouble,” Alioum told The Daily Beast.

As Alioum arrived at the mine, he says, he met three white soldiers accompanied by about a dozen soldiers from the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) standing in front of a number of local community leaders and some heads of other vigilante groups. They gave the locals an ultimatum.

“One of the white soldiers began to speak, saying we should inform everyone who lives near the mine to leave the area because it has been sold off by the government,” Alioum said. “When we asked who it was sold to, they refused to tell us.”

Despite the Russians insisting that residents had to leave the area close to the mine and threatening to forcibly evict anyone who refused to vacate the area, the locals who attended the meeting, according to Alioum, remained adamant.

“We told them at the meeting that we were not going to leave our homes because we have nowhere to go,” said Alioum. “Then they told us that we were going to regret our decision.”

No one in Koki heard from the Russians again until the following month when what witnesses describe as the first major atrocity committed by Russian paramilitaries under the new leadership took place.

An attempt by the Russians to seize the gold mine turned into a bloody massacre, according to 16 witnesses in and around Koki who spoke to The Daily Beast. They say white soldiers executed dozens of people who had been rounded up in the town, where less than 5,000 people live. The victims were mostly artisanal miners, traders and CPC rebels, many of whom live very close to the mine.

“On the first day of the attack alone, I counted 16 bodies,” a villager in Koki told The Daily Beast. “Two of them were male children.”

The attack began on Sunday, Oct. 22, just before noon. Russian paramilitaries accompanied by FACA soldiers arrived by helicopter near the Koki mine and exchanged gunfire for nearly 30 minutes with about two dozen rebels from the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC). Artisanal miners and local vigilantes said four CPC rebels and 12 civilians were killed that day.

“The rebels were meeting on a field, with civilians present, near the mine when a helicopter showed up and started firing at people.” Kondogbia*, an artisanal miner in Koki, told The Daily Beast. “People started to scream and fall on the ground as the shooting began. There was commotion everywhere.”

Several witnesses said white soldiers, which is what locals call the Russian paramilitaries, flew another helicopter overhead, dropping bombs and firing at people who tried to escape from the area. They said the bombing and shooting lasted for hours.

“While the aerial strikes were taking place, another group of white soldiers and FACA officials spread themselves across the town, making sure that all the exits were blocked,” said Alioum. “Many people were trapped.”

The operation, which witnesses say involved dozens of Russian paramilitaries and a handful of FACA soldiers, lasted for five days. Survivors say scores of men were rounded up; some were tortured, some killed.

The destruction was huge. Numerous houses, especially those belonging to artisanal miners, and shops were reduced to ashes, rendering many people homeless.

“Koki was brought to its knees,” said Kondogbia, whose home was destroyed during the onslaught. “The attackers made sure everyone who worked at the mine was either killed or rendered homeless.”

When the Russian paramilitaries met with local leaders in Koki a month before the massacre, they made it clear where the orders came from. “During the meeting, one of them said, ‘We are doing what our new bosses told us to do,’” said Alioum.

These new bosses have come in to fill the void left by Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin who was reportedly killed in a plane crash in Tver Oblast, north of Moscow, on Aug. 23. The Russian Ministry of Defense has stepped in to oversee the operations of Russian mercenaries across CAR who were previously under Prigozhin and Wagner’s command, a number of well-placed senior government officials in the Central African nation told The Daily Beast.

In Markounda, a town just 30 miles from Koki, military vehicles used by Russian paramilitaries have been stationed near gold mining sites since September, with the Russians “preventing anyone from going close to the mines,” a local artisanal miner told The Daily Beast. A Wagner-affiliated company, Midas Ressources, has given an ultimatum to locals in Ndachima, a mining town located in the central region of CAR, to leave the area or face forcible eviction, according to community leaders in the town.

The order to chase people away from their communities came from Moscow, according to three CAR government and military officials. In mid-September, just days before locals living in mining areas in Koki and Ndachima said the Russians threatened to evict them from their homes, a delegation from Russia arrived in Bangui, the CAR capital. There they met with top government officials, including President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, to inform them that Russia would continue to operate in the country but under the command of the Russian defense ministry. The delegation also sought assurances that Russian interests in the country would be protected, the three CAR officials who attended meetings with the Russian team told The Daily Beast.

The delegation comprised Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov; Andrei Averyanov, a notorious general in the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU; Valery Golubsov, who works in the Russian embassy in Sudan as military attaché; and Konstantin Mirzayants, the leader of PMC Redut, one of Russia’s oldest private military companies, which fought in the frontlines in Ukraine. PMC Redut is funded by Gennady Timchenko, a Russian oligarch and close ally of President Vladimir Putin. It is one of two private military companies tapped by the Kremlin to take over Wagner’s responsibilities in Africa, the other is PMC Convoy, led by Konstantin Pikalov and funded by Arkady Rotenberg, another Russian oligarch.

“They stated clearly that Russia wanted to immediately begin mining operations in locations in the north and central regions,” a senior CAR government official who attended a meeting in Bangui with the Russian delegation told The Daily Beast. “Even when we expressed concern about the presence of armed rebels in these areas and how that could lead to a bloody conflict, they weren’t bothered.”

In the same meeting, the Russians didn’t only make clear their intentions to expand their mining operations in the restive African nation. Yevkurov, who led the team to Bangui, also introduced the ruthless Maj. Gen. Averyanov, whom Western intelligence agencies accuse of leading a GRU unit that’s behind a number of assassinations in Europe, as the man who’ll be in constant touch with the CAR government regarding Russia’s operations in the country.

“The [Russian] delegation described him as an honest officer who always gets the job done quickly,” said another senior CAR government official who didn’t want his name mentioned because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the outcome of the meeting. British intelligence believes that Averyanov, who orchestrated the 2018 plot to assassinate double-agent Sergei Skripal with the Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, England, had a role in the plane crash that killed Prigozhin.

“Whenever he spoke, he sounded like the man in charge of Russia’s operations [in the CAR],” said a FACA official who was present when the visiting Russian delegation addressed military officials in Bangui. “He always said, ‘I will make sure,’ rather than ‘we will make sure’ when addressing an issue regarding the operations of Russian military instructors.”

Averyanov, The Daily Beast was informed, made it clear to CAR officials that Russian operations in the country will be restructured, as a new face will be brought in immediately to directly coordinate the activities of the so-called Russian military instructors in CAR. A week later, Denis Pavlov, a Russian diplomat who previously worked as a scribe at the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations in Geneva and to the European Union in Brussels, was introduced to President Touadéra by top Russian embassy officials as the man to coordinate Russia’s partnership with the CAR’s security outfits, basically becoming Averyanov’s eyes in CAR.

“The Russian ambassador [Alexander Bikantov] informed the government that [Pavlov] was deployed by the Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia,” a well-placed CAR government official told The Daily Beast. “He is definitely the man the Russian delegation that visited in early September said was coming to the country soon.”

The Kremlin had long reached a decision to replace Prigozhin’s loyalists even before the demise of the Wagner founder. Shortly after Prigozhin led an insurrection in Russia in June which led to his fallout with Putin, Russian government officials informed their CAR counterparts of the Kremlin’s intention to replace the Wagner Group’s leadership, meaning that Prigozhin’s allies including notorious operations leaders Dmitry Syty and Vitaly Perfilev would no longer have the final say on how Russian mercenaries in the country go about their business, according to senior CAR government officials who spoke to The Daily Beast.

“The Russian foreign minister [Sergey Lavrov] had informed the president [of CAR] during a phone call in June that new people will be brought in to oversee Russia’s operations in the country,” an adviser to President Touadéra told The Daily Beast. “What we’re seeing now is not surprising at all.”

Both Syty, who served as Wagner’s operational head under Prigozhin and communications adviser to Touadéra, and Perfilev, who has been acting as the national security adviser to Touadéra since last year, remain in the war-torn Central Africa nation but under the watchful eyes of Pavlov, who’ll also oversee hundreds of Russian paramilitaries in the CAR.

“At the moment, there are over 1,000 Russian military instructors in the country,” an official in the office of the CAR Prime Minister told The Daily Beast, admitting that close to 500 paramilitaries had left the country in July following Prigozhin’s mutiny against the Russian government the previous month. “We expect more military instructors to arrive in the country by the start of next year.”

Russian military operations in the CAR have always been controversial. With Prigozhin as its leader, the Wagner Group was accused of a raft of war crimes and human rights abuses in the conflict-hit nation, some of which were condemned by the United Nations. For five years, the group gave military training to FACA soldiers and so-called repentant rebels who they used to target mining communities in an attempt to take control of gold mines in those areas. Within that time, Wagner tightened its grip on the country’s mineral resources and built a network of shadowy companies and operations across the CAR, taking advantage of Touadera’s desperate need for security and protection.

“Following recent observations and reports, there has not been a noticeable shift in operations after the death of Prigozhin,” said Isabella Currie, a researcher into the Wagner Group. “It’s important to note the secretive nature of the group making it challenging to determine their activities, with past reports indicating their strict control over information by confiscating electronic devices.”

Regarded as one of the world’s poorest nations, the CAR descended into civil war in 2013. A mainly Muslim rebel coalition called Séléka, supported by thousands of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, took control of the capital Bangui, overthrew the government led by then-President François Bozizé, and began plundering villages. They also targeted Christians and supporters of the former president. In response, Christian vigilantes began a bloody program of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim minority, causing the U.N. to impose an arms embargo and create a peacekeeping mission.

Muslim rebels and Christian militants still control much of the country and continue to fight each other to take control of territory and mineral resources. A helpless Touadéra, who was sworn in as president in 2016, turned to Russia for security assistance months after taking office. Moscow accepted with an agreement to allow Russia to exploit CAR’s natural resources, which the Wagner Group did with brutality.

Initially, Valery Zakharov, a former Russian military intelligence officer who—until last year—had been the national security adviser to Touadéra, tried to negotiate a deal with rebel groups, but talks collapsed and Wagner paramilitaries began an offensive against the rebels who controlled most of CAR’s gold and diamond mines. Today, the Russians control some of the biggest mines in the central part of the CAR, including sites in Ndassima and Bria, while Wagner-founded companies such as Lobaye Invest, Midas Ressources, and Diamville have received licenses to explore, buy and export the country’s mineral resources.

In April 2021, Wagner mercenaries and FACA forces recaptured Markounda, which is close to Koki, from CPC rebels who had held the town for months. Many of the militants regrouped in Koki where they dictate how the village is run, including imposing taxes on traders and local miners.

“Of course, there are rebels in Koki who try to tell the people how to live their lives but that doesn’t mean that the people support them or are happy with what they are doing,” Saidi*, a livestock trader in Koki, told The Daily Beast. “Unfortunately, these white soldiers think everyone in Koki is either a rebel or loves the rebels and so they want to punish everybody.”

On Oct. 23—the second day of the attack on Koki—witnesses told The Daily Beast that Russian paramilitaries detained dozens of unarmed men who were picked up from their homes and from areas around the mine. Among those detained were artisanal miners, traders who do business with artisanal miners, and CPC rebels who stepped out of their homes without their firearms, the witnesses said.

The men, who were detained very early in the morning, had their hands tied together and were ordered to lie on the ground by the paramilitaries who held them until the following day, according to the witnesses.

“They gave us no food or water,” Yassan*, who was one of those detained in a building near the Koki mine, told The Daily Beast. “I feared they wanted to kill us by starving us to death.”

But the Russians had other plans. At about 12 noon on Oct. 24, witnesses said the paramilitaries selected several men and ordered them to move outside the building. Moments later, they say they were summarily executed.

“The gunshots were so loud, which indicated that they were killed just outside the building,” Yassan said. “Everyone was scared they could be the next to get killed.”

Witnesses said the Russians targeted men they believed were CPC rebels or people they assumed worked closely with the militants. The paramilitaries, they said, made their selection based on where a detainee was picked up from.

“Those executed were people either arrested from the gold mine or from homes very close to the gold mine,” Biandao*, one of those arrested by Russian paramilitaries in Koki, told The Daily Beast. “Some of those killed were CPC rebels but many other victims were artisanal miners who mostly lived close to the mine.”

The Russian paramilitaries didn’t return to the building after carrying out the alleged executions. “When none of the soldiers came back to us after so many hours, we all decided to run away,” said Biandao.

The escapees recalled seeing the dead bodies of the men executed by the Russians as they ran from where they had been detained. “Some were shot in the head, others in the chest area,” Yassan said.

The CPC released a statement signed by Colonel Hamadou Rawandou, its military spokesman, saying an attack by the Russians had left at least 16 people dead.

Former President Bozizé set up the CPC in December 2020. The alliance of CAR’s armed groups began an offensive just before the country’s presidential election in order to try to stop the re-election of President Touadéra and overthrow his government.

Bozizé was disqualified by the country’s constitutional court from contesting the presidential election on account of his international arrest warrant. The rebels constantly target CAR forces and allied Russian paramilitaries who, in response, have been conducting a counter-offensive against the militants. But the Russians may also be at war with the CPC for another reason.

“At the moment, a good number of CAR’s lucrative mines are in the hands of the rebels,” Jacob Biakolo, a Cameroon-based human rights campaigner who was previously a contractor at the economy ministry, told The Daily Beast. “The Russians are aware that there’s a lot of money they can make from the mines they don’t control and that is why they can go to any level, including bloodshed, to get them.”

Elsewhere in Koki, on the outskirts of the town, two locals said they heard loud gunshots at night on Oct. 25 after white soldiers stormed a compound and forcefully took some men away. “We first heard people screaming and then gunshots followed,” one of them told The Daily Beast.

The following morning, according to another local who heard gunshots and loud screams the previous night, there were dead bodies in the area. “I counted the bodies of six people who had been shot to death,” he told The Daily Beast.

Other lucky survivors in Koki explained how they were detained for days in an abandoned warehouse, where they were repeatedly tortured.

“[Russian paramilitaries] stormed our compound, ordered all the men out of their homes, and marched us to a building where traders used to store foodstuffs in the past,” Oma*, a livestock trader in Koki, told The Daily Beast. “They kept asking us questions about the CPC rebels and when we couldn’t answer, they beat us with their guns.”

There were about 40 men taken to the building on Oct. 24, the day they were first detained, according to the witnesses. The detainees only regained their freedom because the Russians heard gunshots they thought were fired by CPC rebels which made the paramilitaries flee the building.

“Only 30 of us left the building [on Oct. 26],” Habib*, another who was detained by the Russians in Koki, told The Daily Beast. “Others were taken away by the white soldiers on the second day of our detention and we haven’t seen or heard from them to this day.”

It’s difficult to ascertain the total number of people killed in Koki during the operation. An artisanal miner who helped recover some of the bodies from the streets said he counted 22 corpses, some of which were buried in common graves after no one could identify them. “Some of the corpses were even burnt, meaning the people who killed them set them on fire,” he told The Daily Beast.

A local vigilante who was part of a group that went round Koki in search of the dead said they were able to recover bodies from bushes, from a number of compounds, and from areas where people were detained.

“We counted 30 bodies,” Nuru*, who spent eight days with other vigilantes in search of dead bodies, told The Daily Beast. “The number does not include those who were buried by family members before we got there.”

In total, the vigilantes believe as many as 50 people were killed in Koki during the operation. “We reached that conclusion based on what we were told by those who had buried their loved ones and from the number of bodies we recovered,” Nuru said.

A local village chief cited that figure, saying he spoke to many survivors and witnesses to be able to ascertain the number of deaths. “I spent over a month going round the town speaking to people who saw how the atrocities happened and those who helped to find the bodies of those killed,” the village chief told The Daily Beast.

But it’s been two months since the attacks in Koki and dozens of people are still missing. Locals fear the worst.

“It’s either they were killed and buried by the white soldiers or they were taken out of the town,” said Alioum, whose vigilante group gave up its search for missing villagers in early November. “We’ve looked for them everywhere in Koki but we haven’t been able to find them.”

For those who cheated death, rebuilding their lives is going to be difficult. When some returned home, they found out that their houses had been ransacked.

“All my valuables, including jewelry and money, had been stolen,” Yassan said. “They left me with nothing.”

Neither the CAR government nor Pavlov has responded to emails from The Daily Beast requesting comments on the attacks in Koki. Emails sent to the spokesperson of the CAR government and to the Russian Embassy in Bangui, where Pavlov works, went unanswered.

In 2019, the CAR government rescinded the mining license and exploration permits for Ndassima gold mine in the center of the country from the Canadian registered company Axmin and then granted them the following year to Midas Ressources, reportedly without legal basis, according to the research organization, The Sentry. After initially paying militias from the Union for Peace (UPC), a rebel group in the east and central part of the CAR which controlled the mine at the time, to ensure that equipment and staff of the company were secure, Wagner mercenaries—in 2021—began a counteroffensive against the rebels but also targeted civilians, especially artisanal miners who lived in the area.

“When white men came here two years ago, they ordered all [artisanal] miners to leave the area and when the miners refused to leave, they shot them dead,” a woman who says her husband was killed by Wagner told The Daily Beast. “They killed eight miners, including my husband, on the same day.”

Midas has since gained full control of the Ndassima gold mine, which the CAR government previously said has a gold deposit valued at an estimated $2.8 billion, and has turned the site into a major producer. The company was sanctioned in June by the United States Department of the Treasury for “financing Wagner’s operations in the CAR and beyond.” But sanctions by the U.S. and even the death of Prigozhin haven’t slowed Midas. Instead the company, which Averyanov’s men in the CAR seem to have under their control, may be seeking to expand its operations.

“When it comes to Midas, the government deals directly with the leadership of the Russian instructors in Bangui, who oversee the company,” an official in the CAR ministry of mines and geology told The Daily Beast. “Sadly, we [in the ministry of mines and geology] do not know so much about how the company is being run.”

In September, Russian representatives from Midas met with local leaders, including village chiefs and the leadership of women and youth groups, in Ndachima in the center of CAR, and informed them that the area of the town where mining activities take place has been bought from the CAR government by the company, according to two people who were present in the meeting. “They gave us an ultimatum to leave the area by the end of the year otherwise they’ll forcibly take us out of our own land,” a village chief who attended the meeting told The Daily Beast.

There was nothing to prove that Midas had acquired the area from the government, according to those present in the meeting. “They didn’t show a single document to support their claim. Rather, they were arrogant and disrespectful to all of us,” one of the youths who attended the meeting told The Daily Beast.

The Daily Beast reached out to a representative of Midas Ressources for comment but did not receive a reply.

With time running out for locals in Ndachima who have been asked to vacate their lands, how and when the Russians will respond remains to be seen.

“[The Russians] have no problem doing it [evicting locals in Ndachima from their lands],” Alain Nzilo, publisher of Corbeau News Centrafrique, one of CAR’s best-known independent news outlets, told The Daily Beast. “Down there (in the central part of the CAR), they are kings and demigods.”

Source:Ocnus.net 2024

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