High-level officials in Bangui have confirmed the departure of Wagner personnel from the Central African Republic (CAR).
Senior sources from CAR‘s ministry of defence and an official from the Russian embassy have revealed around 400 Wagner employees left the capital on two planes on Wednesday, confirming local reports of Wagner disengagement.
One ministry of defence official said the Wagner Group personnel who left refused to sign new contracts with Russia’s ministry of defence.
He revealed between 1,300 and 1,400 Wagner employees still remained in the country but that around a hundred were packing up to leave Bouar, a key base on the trading route with Cameroon.
Bouar is a critical stronghold against rebels incentivised to take control of the base and disrupt the lucrative timber trade – a massive threat to the country’s President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who Wagner is contracted to protect.
CAR’s government signed a defence deal with the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov after a reported meeting in October 2017.
The security and political support offered to President Touadera’s regime in exchange for access to mining operations began when the first Wagner mercenaries arrived in January 2018.
During their five years of operation, Wagner has been accused of carrying out mass atrocities against the local population.
Now, in the fallout of Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin‘s failed coup against Russia’s armed forces in Moscow, the nature of the group’s presence in CAR is vulnerable to change.
A second source from the highest ranks of CAR’s ministry of defence confirmed that “hundreds” of Wagner personnel had left and that there was still confusion within government on future dealings with Russian security involvement.
He added there was eagerness to continue security contracts with Russia, and if Moscow wanted to change its relationship with Wagner as an implementing force then the CAR government would accept it.
Shortly after Prigozhin’s halted march to Moscow on 25 June, an adviser to President Touadera and former minister Fidele Gouandijika said: “In 2018, CAR signed a defence agreement with Russia and not with Wagner.
“If Russia has no agreement anymore with Wagner it will send us a new contingent.
“Maybe the chef will change but the Wagner soldiers will continue operating for Russia.”
Flights to ‘unknown destinations’
Reports of Wagner departures have been circulating since Wednesday but a plane carrying personnel out of Bangui was documented as early as Monday.
Africa-focused security analyst Ian Cox has been monitoring aircraft movements in Wagner’s areas of operations on the continent since Prigozhin’s attempted coup.
“Over the past week there has been a notable increase in Russian-made Ilyushin Il-76 strategic airlifters passing through Entebbe, Uganda, going to and from unknown destinations further into the region,” he said.
“A notable exception being a Russian registered Il-76 which arrived in Bangui on July 3 from Russia and departed the same day to Entebbe.
“This aircraft then departed to Dubai on July 6 before flying to Tyumen, Russia on the morning of July 7.”
A senior Ugandan military commander told Sky News the aircraft was carrying personnel when it left Entebbe, Uganda’s main airport.
The plane’s final destination, Tyumen, a city in Russian Siberia, is home to one of the two Wagner recruitment centres that reopened after Prigozhin’s failed rebellion.
John Lechner, an independent researcher studying Wagner in CAR, put these findings to a Wagner source in Bangui who dismissed them and said “local guys are unaware”.
“Wagner forces are clearly moving both within CAR and out – and everyone in Bangui is trying to figure out whether this reflects rainy season patterns and standard rotations or if it is something different,” said Mr Lechner.
“The news that Prigozhin is back in Russia, potentially having his assets returned, is making it even harder to read the tea leaves.”