Putin’s Private Army Accused of Sickening New Massacre

GALLO, Central African Republic—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.

PMC Redut is funded by Gennady Timchenko, a Russian oligarch and close ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

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.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) attends a meeting with Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (2R) and Andrei Troshev (R), the chairman of the League for Protecting Interests of Veterans of Local Wars and Military Conflicts, at the Kremlin, Sept. 28, 2023.

Mikhail Metzel/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

“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…

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