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Russian mercenaries are Putin’s ‘coercive tool’ in Africa

When abuses were reported in recent weeks in Mali — fake graves designed to discredit French forces; a massacre of some 300 people, mostly civilians — all evidence pointed to the shadowy mercenaries of Russia’s Wagner Group.

Even before these feared professional soldiers joined the assault on Ukraine, Russia had deployed them to under-the-radar military operations across at least half a dozen African countries. Their aim: to further President Vladimir Putin’s global ambitions, and to undermine democracy.

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The Wagner Group passes itself off as a private military contractor and the Kremlin denies any connection to it or even, sometimes, that it exists.

But Wagner’s commitment to Russian interests has become apparent in Ukraine, where its fighters, seen wearing the group’s chilling white skull emblem, are among the Russian forces currently attacking eastern Ukraine.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner has gained substantial footholds for Russia in Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali. Wagner’s role in those countries goes way beyond the cover story of merely providing a security service, experts say.

“They essentially run the Central African Republic,” and are a growing force in Mali, Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of US armed forces in Africa, told a Senate hearing last month.

The United States identifies Wagner’s financer as Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch who is close to the Russian president and sometimes is called “Putin’s chef” for his flashy restaurants favored by the Russian leader.

He was charged by the US government with trying to influence the 2016 US presidential election, and the Wagner Group is the subject of US and European Union sanctions.

Russia’s game plan for Africa, where it has applied its influence as far north as Libya and as far south as Mozambique, is straightforward in some ways, say analysts. It seeks alliances with regimes or juntas shunned by the West or facing insurgencies and internal challenges to their rule.

The African leaders get recognition from the Kremlin and military muscle from Wagner. They pay for it by giving Russia prime access to their oil, gas, gold, diamonds and valuable minerals.

Russia also gains positions on a strategically important continent.

But there’s another objective of Russia’s “hybrid war” in Africa, said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Siegle said Russia is also waging an ideological battle, using Wagner as a “coercive tool” to undermine Western ideas of democracy and turn countries toward Moscow. Putin wants to challenge the international democratic order “because Russia can’t compete very well in that order,” Siegle said.

“If democracy is held up as the ultimate aspirational governance model, then that is constraining for Russia,” Siegle said.

Rather, Wagner promotes Russian interests with soldiers and guns, but also through propaganda and disinformation, as Prigozhin has done for Putin before.

In Central African Republic, Wagner fighters ride around the capital Bangui in unmarked military vehicles and guard the country’s gold and diamond mines. They have helped to hold off armed rebel groups and to keep President Faustin-Archange Touadera in power, but their reach goes much further.

Russian national Valery Zakharov is Touadera’s national security advisor but also a “key figure” in Wagner’s command structure, according to European Union documents accusing the mercenary group of serious human rights violations.

A statue erected last year in Bangui depicts Russian soldiers standing side by side to protect a woman and her children. Russia is cast as the country’s savior and pro-Russia marches have been held in support of the war in Ukraine and to criticize former security partner France — though several protesters said they are paid.

“A Central African adage says that when someone helps you, you have to reciprocate. This is why we have mobilized as one to support Russia,” said Didacien Kossimatchi, an official in Touadera’s political party. “Russia has absolved us of the unacceptable domination of the West.”

Kossimatchi said Russia was “acting in self-defense” in Ukraine.

Such support from African countries is a strategic success for Russia. When the United Nations voted on a resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, 17 of the 35 countries that abstained from the vote — nearly half — were African. Several other African nations did not register a vote.

“Africa is fast becoming crucial to Putin’s efforts to dilute the influence of the United States and its international alliances,” said a report in March by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a non-profit set up by the former British prime minister.

Russia’s strategy in Africa comes at a minimal cost economically and politically. Analysts estimate Wagner operates with only a few hundred to 2,000 mercenaries in a country. Many are ex-Russian military intelligence, Siegle said, but because it’s a private force the Kremlin can deny responsibility for Wagner’s actions.

The real price is paid by ordinary people.

The people of Central African Republic aren’t more secure, said Pauline Bax, Africa Program deputy director of the International Crisis Group think tank. “In fact, there’s more violence and intimidation,” she said.

France, the US and human rights groups have accused Wagner mercenaries of extra-judicial killings of civilians in Central African Republic. A UN panel of experts said private military groups and “particularly the Wagner Group” have violently harassed people and committed rape and sexual violence. They are just the latest accusations of serious abuses by the group.

Central African Republic in 2021 acknowledged serious human rights violations by Russians, which forced Russian ambassador Vladimir Titorenko to leave his post.

The Wagner group has responded with a charm offensive — creating films designed to please the public, sponsoring beauty pageants and distributing educational materials that promote Russia’s involvement in Africa. Russian is now being taught in universities.

Russia has taken its Central African Republic blueprint to Mali and elsewhere in Africa. In Mali, there has been an “uprooting of democracy,” said Aanu Adeoye, an analyst on Russia-Africa affairs at the London-based Chatham House think tank.

Following coups in 2020 and last year, France is withdrawing troops from its former colony that had been helping fight Islamic extremists since 2013. Wagner moved in, striking a security deal with Mali’s new military junta, which then expelled the French ambassador and banned French TV stations.

Tensions with the West have escalated. So has the violence.

Last month, Mali’s army and foreign soldiers who witnesses suspected were Russian killed an estimated 300 men in the rural town of Moura. Some of those killed were suspected extremists but most were civilians, Human Rights Watch said, calling it a “deliberate slaughter of people in custody.”

This week, when French forces handed over control of the Gossi military base, suspected Wagner agents hurriedly buried several bodies nearby and a Russian social media campaign blamed France for the graves. The French military, however, had used aerial surveillance after their withdrawal to show the creation of the sandy graves.

Both atrocities bear the hallmarks of Wagner mercenaries and Russia’s foreign policy brand under Putin, say several analysts.

“They have no concerns about minor things like democracy and human rights,” said Chatham House’s Adeoye.

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US: Bodies of two of three missing kids found in Minnesota lake

The bodies of two young children have been recovered from a Minnesota lake, and searchers are still looking for a third they fear may have been intentionally drowned.

Meanwhile, the father of the children died at a different location hours earlier, and their mother is missing. Names have not been released.

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The chain of events began Friday morning when the father was found dead at a mobile home park in the town of Maplewood, near Minneapolis. Police determined that the woman had left with the children, and a search began.

Maplewood Police Lt. Joe Steiner said the woman’s car was found near Vadnais Lake around 4 p.m. Friday. The shoes of the children were found on the shore.

A search of the lake found one child’s body Friday evening. A second body was found overnight. Searchers from several organizations were busy Saturday looking for the third, as well as the mother.

Authorities believe all three children were under the age of 5.

“There’s nothing more tragic than the loss of young children,” Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said at a news conference on Friday. He called the deaths a “likely triple homicide.”

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer.

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A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said on Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.

“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”

The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.

Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.

In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.

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One killed, six injured in shootout between migrant groups in Serbia

One migrant was killed and at least six others, including a teenage girl, were injured Saturday in a shootout between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border, the state-run RTS television reported.

The 16-year-old girl sustained life threatening injuries in the incident that occurred in a forest in the outskirts of Subotica, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Belgrade, where the injured were hospitalized, RTS reported.

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Police, who made no immediate comment, blocked access to the forest where the incident took place, only around a kilometer from the Hungarian border.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin rushed to the scene.

The injured, aged between 20 and 30, have no documents, Subotica mayor Stevan Bakic told local media.

It is not known what triggered the incident, he added.

Local media reported that the shootout occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants most likely over human trafficking from the area to European Union member Hungary.

Serbia lies on the so-called Balkans route used by migrants heading towards Western Europe as they flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Although the route is nowhere as busy as it was during Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, tens of thousands of illegal migrants still cross the region annually.

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