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

Russian mercenaries are Putin’s ‘coercive tool’ in Africa
Malians demonstrate against France and in support of Russia on the 60th anniversary of the independence of Mali in 1960, in Bamako in 2020. The banner in French reads: “Putin, the road to the future.” (AP Photo/File)
Short Url
Updated 23 April 2022

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

Russian mercenaries are Putin’s ‘coercive tool’ in Africa
  • 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
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner has gained substantial footholds for Russia in Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali

DAKAR, Senegal: 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.
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 adviser 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.


Indian mother and son shoot to fame after passing civil service exam together

Indian mother and son shoot to fame after passing civil service exam together
Updated 23 sec ago

Indian mother and son shoot to fame after passing civil service exam together

Indian mother and son shoot to fame after passing civil service exam together
  • Social media full of praise for family duo from Kerala
  • They applied and prepared together for Public Service Commission exams

NEW DELHI: A mother and son from Kerala made national headlines and the rounds on social media in India on Wednesday after clearing civil service exams together.

Nedumkalathil Bindu, 42, and Vivek Ottupara, 24, from the Malappuram district in the southwestern Indian state, have studied together to take the Public Service Commission’s examination.

The mother’s test results for Last Grade Servants were announced in late July with the rank of 92, while her son for Lower Divisional Clerk came out last week with the rank of 38.  

For Bindu, who for the past 10 years has been involved in rural social work, it was a third attempt at the test. And the third time proved to be the charm.

“I have been trying to clear this exam since 2014,” she told Arab News over the phone from Malappuram.

The exam is conducted every three years. After failing twice, Bindu joined hands with her son, who had completed his degree in geography in 2019.

“I used to go to the Prateeksha coaching center in the Areekode area of Malappuram,” she said. “I also asked my son to join the coaching.”

Although both knew that they were well prepared to clear the tests, they were surprised when the news broke, going viral on social media.

“We are happy and tense because we are not able to handle this situation of constant attention,” Ottupara said. “We did not expect that the result would go viral.” It was the last chance for Bindu to try to join the civil service in Kerala, where the maximum age to apply is 40. She applied in 2019, a year before crossing the limit.

Social media posts under news headlines praised the duo for being an inspiration for Indian mothers and their children, and an “awesome example of willingness to achieve goals.”

Bindu was initially reluctant to give interviews but said that her coaching center told her the achievement will help motivate others.

“I keep on getting lots of calls from people,” she said. “I got a call from a coaching center in Calicut which said that because of me many women have joined the coaching. I feel that all the bother is worth it if I can inspire even one person.”


UK accidentally leaks personal data on Afghan teacher in hiding from Taliban

UK accidentally leaks personal data on Afghan teacher in hiding from Taliban
Updated 7 min 15 sec ago

UK accidentally leaks personal data on Afghan teacher in hiding from Taliban

UK accidentally leaks personal data on Afghan teacher in hiding from Taliban
  • The man, who has worked abroad, has been in hiding in Afghanistan with his wife and two children since the Taliban takeover in August last year
  • Afghan teacher: ‘I am more exposed and at risk of being misidentified as a British spy, because I worked abroad for so long’

LONDON: An Afghan teacher has been told by a UK government department that his personal details were passed to a member of the public in Afghanistan “in error.”

The man, who has worked abroad, has been in hiding in Afghanistan with his wife and two children since the Taliban takeover in August last year.

The data breach has been acknowledged by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and is the first known leak under the government’s Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, which prioritizes those who have assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and vulnerable people, including members of minority groups.

Those wishing to apply for transfer to the UK through the scheme must complete an “expression of interest” form. The family’s personal details from this form were leaked to another Afghan citizen, putting them at risk of being found by the Taliban.

The ACRS team alerted the man to the leak, saying: “In accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation, I am writing to inform you that some of your personal data has, in error, been forwarded on to another member of the public who had submitted an expression of interest for the ACRS … which contained personal data, including your name and background details.

“We have reviewed our processes in light of this event and taken steps to avoid it happening again.”

The man said: “What is really upsetting and unsettling is the fact that instead of being the source of comfort and sanctuary, the British government has regrettably become the source of unimaginable pain and danger for us. These errors could be lethal.

“I am so frustrated with the blunders and non-responsiveness from the government during such a difficult year. Now I am lost for words that this has happened. I am more exposed and at risk of being misidentified as a British spy, because I worked abroad for so long. We are extremely shocked … It is so distressing for us all.”

The FCDO and the UK Home Office have joint responsibility for processing ACRS applications.

The government says it aims to resettle more than 5,000 people through the scheme in the first year, once the window for expression of interest forms closes on August 15.

Anyone resettled through the scheme will receive indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and under existing rules be able to apply for British citizenship after five years.

The ACRS runs separately to the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy, which offers relocation to those who worked directly for the British government, including interpreters and security guards.

Related


Wildfires rage in France, thousands evacuated from homes

Wildfires rage in France, thousands evacuated from homes
Updated 10 August 2022

Wildfires rage in France, thousands evacuated from homes

Wildfires rage in France, thousands evacuated from homes
  • Skies darkened from the smoke billowing from forests destroyed by fires that have razed more than 6,000 hectares
  • France, like the rest of Europe, has been struggling this summer with successive heatwaves and its worst drought on record

HOSTENS, France: Wildfires tore through the Gironde region of southwestern France on Wednesday, destroying homes and forcing the evacuation of more than 8,000 residents, some of whom had clambered onto rooftops as the flames got closer.
Skies darkened from the smoke billowing from forests destroyed by fires that have razed more than 6,000 hectares (14,826 acres) and were continuing to burn out of control despite the efforts of firefighters backed by water-bombing aircraft.
France, like the rest of Europe, has been struggling this summer with successive heatwaves and its worst drought on record. Dozens of wildfires are ablaze across the country, including at least eight major ones.
“Prepare your papers, the animals you can take with you, some belongings and WAIT FOR THE INVITATION TO LEAVE which will be notified to you by the gendarmerie, officials or volunteers going door-to-door,” the Gironde municipality of Belin-Beliet said on Facebook after authorities decided to evacuate part of the town.
In the nearby village of Hostens, police had earlier been door to door telling residents to leave as the fire advanced. Camille Delay fled with her partner and her son, grabbing their two cats, chickens and house insurance papers before taking flight.
“Everyone in the village climbed onto their rooftops to see what was happening — within ten minutes a little twist of smoke became enormous,” the 30-year-old told Reuters by telephone.
Firefighters said more evacuations were likely. Even so, some Hostens residents were reluctant to abandon their homes.
“It’s complicated to go with the dogs and we cannot leave them here,” said Allisson Horan, 18, who stayed behind with her father.
“I’m getting worried because the fire is in a plot of land behind ours and the wind is starting to change direction.”
Numerous small roads, and parts of a highway, were closed.

HEATWAVES
Sweden and Italy are among countries preparing to send help to France, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
He repeated calls for everyone to be responsible — nine out of 10 fires are either voluntarily or involuntarily caused by people, he said.
The Gironde wildfire is one of many that have broken out across Europe this summer, triggered by heatwaves that have baked the continent and brought record temperatures to some places.
In Portugal, nearly 1,200 firefighters backed by eight aircraft have battled a blaze in the mountainous Covilha area some 280 km (174 miles) northeast of Lisbon that has burned more than 3,000 hectares of forest since Saturday.
Spain and Greece have also had to tackle multiple fires over the past few weeks.
The Gironde was hit by major wildfires in July which destroyed more than 20,000 hectares of forest and temporarily forced almost 40,000 people from their homes.
Authorities believe the latest inferno was a result of the previous fires still smoldering in the area’s peaty soil.
Fires were also raging in the southern departments of Lozere and Aveyron. In the Maine et Loire department in western France, more than 1,200 hectares have been scorched by another fire.


UK Muslim mother grieving after death of daughter in gas explosion

UK Muslim mother grieving after death of daughter in gas explosion
Updated 10 August 2022

UK Muslim mother grieving after death of daughter in gas explosion

UK Muslim mother grieving after death of daughter in gas explosion
  • Sana Ahmad says ‘incredible little girl’ died after gas company’s negligence
  • ‘The explosion was so bad that it almost felt like missiles were dropped on the properties’

LONDON: A Muslim mother is mourning the death of her 4-year-old daughter, who was killed in a gas explosion in London.
Sana Ahmad, 28, said her world has been “torn apart” after the incident that killed Sahara Salman, “her incredible little girl,” the Evening Standard reported on Wednesday.
She accused the gas supplier to her home, Southern Gas Networks, of negligence after it allegedly ignored a complaint about a suspected gas leak in July, despite an engineer inspecting the property.
“I made a phone call to my mum because we had arranged for her to collect the children. My mum was going to make her way to the house at about 7:05 a.m. So, I’m on the phone and within seconds she heard me scream because there was a big bang,” Ahmad said.
“My instinct was to grab all my children but as I’d gone to the hallway Sahara’s room had collapsed already … The explosion was so bad that it almost felt like missiles were dropped on the properties. That’s how quickly the building started to fall down.
“My mum identified the smell on July 30. The first call we made to them was on the same day at 3:57 p.m.
“He (the engineer) said that he would send another guy who was higher up than him to inspect the property because he wasn’t totally sure. Unfortunately other guy never did show up. The work wasn’t fully carried out. They did tell us there were loads of little gas leaks — they said that pipes had been leaking but that they were minor leaks.
“The saddest thing is that we tried to prevent this from happening. The gas people should have ensured the safety of not only us, but every single person who lives in that area.
“Now we’re all suffering — the whole community. And now we all have to live with the trauma of a little girl dying.”
Ahmad’s local MP Siobhain McDonagh said: “This should never have happened, we will get to the bottom of it.”
A spokesman for Southern Gas Networks said: “Our deepest sympathies are with the family of the child who has tragically died as well as those injured.
“We’d like to reassure everyone that our engineers are working closely with the emergency services.
“Given the ongoing police investigation, it is inappropriate to comment any further at this stage.”


US uncovers Iran ‘plot’ to kill ex-White House official John Bolton

US uncovers Iran ‘plot’ to kill ex-White House official John Bolton
Updated 10 August 2022

US uncovers Iran ‘plot’ to kill ex-White House official John Bolton

US uncovers Iran ‘plot’ to kill ex-White House official John Bolton
  • Justice Department says it uncovered an Iranian plot to kill the former White House national security adviser
  • It announced charges against a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

WASHINGTON: The US Justice Department said Wednesday it had uncovered an Iranian plot to kill former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, and announced charges against a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Justice Department said 45-year-old Shahram Poursafi, also known as Mehdi Rezayi, had offered to pay an individual in the US $300,000 to kill Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN.
The Justice Department said that plan was likely set in retaliation for the US killing of top Guard commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January 2020.
Prosecutors say the scheme unfolded more than a year after Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force and an architect of Tehran’s proxy wars in the Middle East, was killed in a targeted airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport in January 2020. After the strike, Bolton, who by then had left his White House post, tweeted, “Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran.”

The allegation came as Iran weighs a proposed agreement in Vienna talks to revive the 2015 agreement that aims to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
For months Tehran has held up the deal, demanding that the US remove its official designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a sponsor of terrorism.
“This is not the first time we have uncovered Iranian plots to exact revenge against individuals on US soil and we will work tirelessly to expose and disrupt every one of these efforts,” said US Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen.
According to the charges, Poursafi tried to arrange Bolton’s murder beginning in October 2021, when he contacted online an unidentified person in the US, first saying he wanted to commission photographs of Bolton.
Poursafi provided the person with Bolton’s office address, including the name and contact information for someone who worked in the office, and took screenshots of surveillance photographs of Bolton’s office, the affidavit says.
He offered $250,000, which was then negotiated up to $300,000.
“Poursafi added that he had an additional ‘job,’ for which he would pay $1 million,” the Justice Department said.


But that second person, court documents say, was a confidential source for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The ostensible assassin stalled, waiting for an initial payment, but only in late April did Poursafi send money, paying a total of $100 in cryptocurrency.
Poursafi was charged with the use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire, which brings up to 10 years in prison, and with providing and attempting to provide material support to a transnational murder plot, which carries a 15-year sentence.
In his own statement, Bolton thanked the FBI and Justice Department for their work in developing the case and the Secret Service for providing protection.
“While much cannot be said publicly right now, one point is indisputable: Iran’s rulers are liars, terrorists, and enemies of the United States,” he said.
He urged President Joe Biden to not restore the nuclear agreement.
Bolton, one of the leading “hawks” of the US foreign policy establishment and a strong critic of Iran, was national security adviser in the White House of president Donald Trump from April 2018 to September 2019.


In the administration of president George Bush, he was ambassador to the UN from 2005-2006.
He was strongly opposed to the 2015 agreement between Tehran and major powers to limit its nuclear program, and supported the Trump administration’s unilateral pullout from the pact in May 2018.
The court documents indicated Bolton was aware of the plot and cooperated with investigators, allowing photographs of himself outside his Washington office to be sent to Poursafi.
Over the months Poursafi discussed the plot with his US contact, he disclosed that it related to Tehran’s desire for revenge for the US killing of Soleimani.
Since that strike on Soleimani Tehran has vowed to extract revenge, and US officials have said that the country had been looking to kill one or more US officials.
Another official believed on Tehran’s target list was Mike Pompeo, who was secretary of state at the time of the assassination of Soleimani, and before that director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
At the time Pompeo said Soleimani had been plotting large scale attacks on US targets like embassies.
(With AFP and AP)