The Russian Foreign Ministry says private Russian companies are training the army in Sudan, confirming their presence in the African country being shaken by mass street demonstrations by opposition forces.
Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on January 23 said that "according to our information, representatives of Russian private security companies, who have nothing to do with Russian state bodies, are operating in Sudan."
Zakharova's comments followed a story in the British press alleged that Russian mercenaries were helping Sudanese authorities crack down on the protests.
Zakharova denied the press reports and said the "task" of the private security firms "is limited to training staff for the military and law enforcement agencies of the Republic of Sudan," which is a close ally of Moscow.
Street protests have been carried out daily since December 19. The rallies were initially in protest against shortages of fuel and commodities, but they have turned into a call for an end to the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir.
Britain's The Guardian newspaper on January 23 reported that Bashir's government was conducting an "alarming" crackdown on journalists covering the protests, with five reporters being held and dozens of others being detained before being released.
The unrest is one of the biggest challenges to Bashir's rule since he took power in a coup in 1989.
Reuters news agency reported that official statistics from the Russian Federal Security Service show a substantial increase in the number of the Russian citizens who left for Sudan in late 2017.
According to the data, some 200 Russians traveled to Sudan in the final three months of last year, far surpassing the previous peak of 76 in any three-month period.
Sudan's oil minister, Azhari Abdel Qader, said on January 23 that the country had received economic assistance from the United Arab Emirates and offers of support from Russia and Turkey during its economic crisis.
"We accepted it as a normal matter between friendly countries in light of the current circumstances that Sudan is going through," he said of the aid, adding that there were offers of "fuel, wheat, and other items" from Turkey and Russia.
He did not confirm whether Sudan, a country of 41 million people, would accept the offers from Russia and Turkey.
Private Russian military contractors have been reported in other countries, including Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Rights monitors said that dozens of them were killed in clashes with U.S.-led forces, although details remain scarce.