Putin ‘confronted’ by head of Wagner group says official
Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali, Mozambique. These are just some of the countries from which the feared Wagner Group has been accused of committing human rights abuses.
Ever since the militia, headed by Yevgeny Prighozin, appeared in 2014, Wagner’s name has cropped up in some of the world’s most brutal and savage conflicts.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Wagner Group soon became synonymous with the war.
Its troops have been operating in the east of the country and are currently believed to hold up to 80 percent of Bakhmut, the crucial city that could determine the fate of Ukraine as spring approaches.
Countless atrocities in Ukraine believed to be carried out by Wagner have been reported in the past year. It is no surprise: look at the years between 2014 and 2022, and horrific violence against not only opposite soldiers but civilians can be found all around the world.
Wagner is known to be operating in several African countries. Much of this work is helping to prop up authoritarian regimes and consolidate fragile power structures.
In Sudan, the group was known to be operating well before current hostilities broke out. Wagner is thought to have helped the Russian government secure lucrative gold mining contracts, as well as the use of Sudan’s Red Sea port.
Documents smuggled out of the country and widely reported on suggest that Wagner has helped train Sudanese soldiers and help to crack down on pro-democracy protests. In 2021, a Telegram channel posted images of a top Wagner commander handing out awards to Sudanese soldiers in a ceremony held in 2019. And in 2022, the same channel published videos showing Wagner mercenaries conducting parachute-landing exercises for Sudanese forces.
Reports fall short of any atrocities carried out by Wagner in Sudan. But the story is much different in the neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR).
It is there that around 2,000 Wagner personnel — described as “Russian instructors” — are supporting government troops in the ongoing civil war.
As in all the countries it is stationed in, Wagner’s operations in CAR not only included military ends but also business interests. It has been raking in massive profits from precious tropical timber, according to All Eyes on Wagner, a group investigating the group.
According to a report written by the group, the government in Bangui granted a subsidiary unrestricted logging rights across 187,000 hectares (722 square miles).
Last year, Wagner mercenaries were accused of summarily executing, torturing and beating civilians in CAR.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that in one incident in 2021, Russian-speaking fighters shot dead at least 12 unarmed men at a roadblock, most of the victims later thrown into a shallow hole near the road.
While CAR’s government denies hiring Wagner to help it fight rebels, continued and historic reports show that the group is present in the country.
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They then took out a chain and wrapped it around my neck and pulled it tight. I fell down, and my tongue rolled out. A Russian put a brick in my mouth and kicked it.
Wagner captive in CAR
UN experts say Wagner has committed systematic and grave human rights violations in CAR, and the HRW say it has committed abuses against civilians with complete impunity since 2019.
The group interviews 40 people between February 2019 and November 2021 — including 10 victims and 15 witnesses — about abuses carried out by men speaking Russian.
Of the interviews, 12 said they had witnessed killings carried out by the group. Other civilians detained on suspicion of being part of rebel groups have also been abused by Wagner, including a shopkeeper in Bambari who had his finger cut off with a knife.
Of his time in captivity, Mahamat Nour Mamadou told HRW: “They beat me badly on my legs with iron rods and knives. My ankles were cuffed. One spoke through a translator and said, ‘We will cut off your fingers.’
“I was screaming; it hurt so bad. They then took out a chain and wrapped it around my neck and pulled it tight. I fell down, and my tongue rolled out. A Russian put a brick in my mouth and kicked it. It loosened my tooth.”
HRW says he was later killed in 2019 in circumstances it described as unclear.
Similar stories have been heard in Mali, in Africa’s west. Here, Wagner has been linked to massacres in which several hundred civilians have died.
Wagner arrived in Mali in 2021 after striking a deal with its new military rulers. The Guardian obtained internal Malian documents confirming the presence of the group and its involvement in helping to instruct the military and aid in missions.
Data compiled by Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), an NGO, showed that up to 456 civilians died in nine incidents involving Malian forces and Wagner between January and April 2022.
Mali has been plagued by insurgent extremist forces, and it is Wagner who is believed to have been recruited to help fight this battle. Yet, in some of its operations, the paramilitary group has shown itself to be ruthless and inhumane.
In March 2022, it is believed to have been involved in a massacre in Moura, a village controlled by Islamist extremists. In a battle waged between the two, between 350 and 380 men were killed over a four-day period — the worst of any such single event involving Wagner.
Thousands of miles away to the southeast, Wagner also found itself tasked with the same mission in Mozambique. There, an Islamist insurgency risked toppling the government, and so the Russian group was called in to help restore order.
Yet, the story is all too familiar. An Amnesty International report penned in 2021 once again linked groups like Wagner with atrocities, the report titled: “Civilians killed as war crimes committed by armed group, government forces, and private military contractors.”
While it did not mention Wagner explicitly, the group had been operating in Mozambique by then for at least two years.
In Libya, Wagner mercenaries in 2022 were accused of systematically breaking international law by laying mines in civilian areas without any attempt to mark their location or even remove the devices at a later date.
UN investigators found that the group had also rigged booby traps to powerful explosive anti-tank weapons that killed two mine clearers working for an NGO.
The team even found a bomb made of a mortar shell and plastic explosives attached to a teddy bear in the capital of Tripoli, believed to be the work of Wagner. Experts say there are a few thousand Wagner mercenaries stationed in Libya.
Experts believe there are a few thousand Wagner mercenaries stationed in Libya.
Wagner’s presence in Syria is well-known. The group are thought to have moved into the country following the outbreak of civil war and a collapse in the traditional power structure.
Again, the group was brought in to help the government fight-off Islamist groups, as well as other rebels attempting to take down President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. Soon, reports of human rights abuses and atrocities came flooding out of Syria.
In March 2021, three advocacy groups filed a landmark legal complaint in Moscow against Wagner over the beheading of a Syrian man in 2017.
Video clips show the gruesome killing: four Russian mercenaries operating as part of Wagner breaking a man’s legs with a sledgehammer, crushing his chest, beheading him, chopping off his arms, hang his corpse by the legs before setting him alight.
The victim had completed his compulsory service in the Syrian army and had travelled to Lebanon for work. On his return, he was pursued by Wagner mercenaries, initially escaping, but they soon caught up with him at the town of al-Kharita in Deir Ezzor. Moscow City Court dismissed the case in March 2022.
For most people, the Wagner Group’s dealings will be mostly related to the atrocities seen in Ukraine. Perhaps the most memorable and vile acts involving Wagner were witnessed in the town of Bucha, just north of Kyiv.
In what is now known as the Bucha massacre, some 500 bodies were found after Russian forces momentarily occupied the region and were forced to withdraw after a Ukrainian offensive.
Among those found dead were nine children under the age of 18. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented the killings, finding executions of at least 73 civilians.
Photos published by the international press showed corpses of civilians lined up with their hands tied behind their backs, shot at point-blank range. Many of the bodies were found mutilated and burnt. Girls as young as 14 reported being raped by Russian soldiers and mercenaries.
An investigation by Radio Free Europe found the use of a basement beneath a campground as a torture chamber.
Since the findings of the massacre came to light in March 2022, Ukraine has asked the International Criminal Court to investigate what happened in the town as part of its ongoing investigation to determine whether a series of Russian war crimes or crimes against humanity were committed. Some organisations like HRW have already concluded that the killings amount to that.
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