UN panel accuses Russia of Africa killings; Moscow says no
UNITED NATIONS -- U.N. experts are accusing Russian military instructors and the Central African Republic forces they are supporting of 'excessive use of force, indiscriminate killings, the occupation of schools and looting on a large scale' -- allegations Moscow strongly rejected Monday.
The panel of experts monitoring sanctions on the conflict-torn African nation said in a 40-page report obtained Monday by The Associated Press that it collected 'testimonies" from a large number of local officials, government military and internal security forces, and community-level sources in multiple locations in the country who reported 'the active participation of Russian instructors in combat operations on the ground.'
The panel said many of the officials and other sources reported that Russian instructors 'often led rather than followed' Central African Republic troops as they advanced on different towns and villages in a counter-offensive against rebels linked to former President Francois Bozize. Bozize tried to prevent elections in December and then attempted to seize power from President Faustin Archange Touadera.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov categorically denied the allegations, first reported in The New York Times, that Russian instructors were involved in killing civilians and looting homes.
'Russian military advisers couldn't take part and didn't take part in any killings or lootings,' Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. 'This is yet another lie.'
The mineral-rich Central African Republic has faced deadly inter-religious and inter-communal fighting since 2013. A peace deal between the government and 14 rebel groups was signed in February 2019, but violence blamed on Bozize and his allies threatens to nullify the agreement.
It erupted after the constitutional court rejected Bozize's candidacy to run for president in December and has continued since Touadera won a second term later that month with 53% of the vote.
The experts said Russia informed the U.N. Security Council committee monitoring sanctions on the Central African Republic in December that it would send 300 unarmed instructors to support the training of the country's infantry and motorized forces and that those deployed did not take part in military operations carried out by the security forces.
The coordinator of the Russian instructors told the panel they were all Russians, recruited from an association of primarily former military officers, and had not been hired by 'a private company,' contrary to reports by a U.N. human rights commission working group and a number of media outlets, the report said.
Last week, the U.S., Britain and France accused Russian personnel in Central African Republic of committing abuses against civilians and obstructing U.N. peacekeeping - accusations Russia angrily denied.
The Western powers linked the Russian personnel to the notorious Wagner Group, a private security company allegedly tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman who has been indicted in the United States on charges of meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whose companies have reportedly secured lucrative mining contracts in Central African Republic.
According to the experts' findings, Russia confirmed on April 18 that it had 532 instructors in the African country, and had never exceeded 550. But the panel noted multiple sources estimated the number of Russian instructors at between 800 and 2,100, and said multiple sources reported the instructors included individuals who identified themselves as nationals of Libya, Syria and other countries.
Although the sanctions committee was informed that the instructors would be unarmed, the panel said it 'directly observed and received testimonies that Russian instructors' supporting government military operations and providing close protection to Central African Republic officials 'were armed.'
It said Russian officials confirmed that instructors were armed, saying that it was for their own protection and that weapons were only used 'when fired upon.' It said the arms and ammunition came from stocks Russia provided to the Ministry of Defense, a breach of end-user commitments to the sanctions committee by Central African Republic's president in 2018 and 2019.
The panel said that in several areas it visited its experts received confidential information and found evidence of excessive use of force by Central African Republic's military and Russian instructors.
As one example, it said a commercial truck driving to the capital, Bangui, was arriving at a temporary checkpoint on Dec. 28, 2020, in Grimari in south-central Ouaka Prefecture when soldiers appeared and ordered the driver to stop. According to eyewitnesses, as he was trying to stop, the soldiers started shooting from both sides and Russian instructors opened fire from the front, it said.
The panel said three civilians were killed and 15 were injured, including six women and a minor, many with multiple bullet wounds. Local officials found no evidence of a connection in the truck to armed groups, it said, and the Russian coordinator denied any involvement.
The panel said that during an operation against rebels backing Bozize in Bambari, the capital of Ouaka Prefecture, on Feb. 15, government troops and Russian instructors entered Al-Takwa mosque, shooting without respect to its religious nature or making any effort to distinguish between fighters and civilians. According to local sources there were 17 victims, including some fighters, but the panel said it was able to confirm that at least six people who died were civilians.
The experts said they received 'numerous reports of indiscriminate killings against unarmed civilians by Russian instructors. They said they were able to confirm with local officials or eyewitnesses a number of such incidents, including the shooting of an unarmed man Feb. 21, the killings of two disabled civilians, and the shooting of two civilians from the Fulani tribe March 8.
In many locations where government soldiers and Russian instructors passed through or deployed, the panel said, it received accounts of looting of houses and buildings with items ranging from livestock to mattresses as well as money and motorbikes.
It said humanitarian groups were also targeted, citing as an example statements about the March 18 looting of an unnamed humanitarian organization in the capital of northwest Ouham prefecture, where goods taken included kits for victims of sexual violence worth about $1,850.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.