The U.S. envoy to the United Nations has called on Russia to immediately stop violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) and pull out "mercenaries” from the poor but resource-rich country.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield made the plea on June 30 after a UN report said Russian military instructors and the CAR forces they are supporting had carried out indiscriminate killings, used excessive force against civilians, and looted in the war-torn African country.
In a statement, Thomas-Greenfield hit out at the Russian personnel as "mercenaries working as an arm of Russia's Ministry of Defense."
"Russia must immediately stop the violence, hold those responsible accountable, and remove mercenaries endangering UN peacekeepers and undermining their crucial work in support of peace and security in the CAR," she said.
Hundreds of Russian advisers, along with UN peacekeepers and Rwandan special forces, help President Faustin Archange Touadera combat rebel groups linked to former President Francois Bozize in the CAR’s civil war.
Western powers say Russia’s instructors are in fact mercenaries from the Vagner Group, a Russian military contractor with ties to the government.
The CAR government dismissed accusations made in an annual UN sanctions report as "slanderous" allegations, while the Kremlin described them as a "lie."
In the report recently submitted to the Security Council, UN sanctions monitors said that CAR soldiers and Russian instructors carried out abuses including “cases of excessive use of force, indiscriminate killings, the occupation of schools and looting on a large scale, including of humanitarian organizations.”
The experts received "numerous reports of cases of indiscriminate killings against unarmed civilians by Russian instructors," the report said.
Moscow says it has only sent 532 instructors to the CAR and that they do not engage in combat.
But the report cited testimonies noting “the active participation of Russian instructors in combat operations on the ground, many having observed that they often led rather than followed” CAR soldiers.
In addition, “multiple sources” estimated Russia had a much higher number of instructors, ranging from 800 to 2,100, the report said.
That estimate does not include 600 additional Russian instructors whose deployment was announced to the UN in May by the CAR.
The experts also cited testimonies that the instructors included people who said they were from Libya, Syria, and elsewhere.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the accusations in the UN report were “yet another lie," while Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the document was full of "ungrounded accusations."
CAR Defense Minister Rameaux-Claude Bireau blasted the "slanderous publication, based on fabricated and unverified evidence."
Last week, the UN's envoy to CAR as well as diplomats from the United States and France accused the nation's security forces and their Russian paramilitary allies of wide-ranging human rights abuses.
Russia has significantly increased its presence and influence in the African country, where Russian national Valery Zakharov serves as national-security adviser to President Touadera.
The CAR government has granted gold and diamond mining permits to Russian companies suspected of having links to Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, and the man believed to be the head of the Vagner Group.
The coordinator of the Russian instructors told the UN panel they were all Russians and recruited from an association of primarily former military officers.
He said the instructors had not been hired by “a private company.”