ABUJA, Nigeria—More than a hundred former Central African Republic (CAR) rebels taken by the infamous Wagner Group—which is run by one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest associates—to Russia last month for military training are set to fight in Ukraine, three government officials told The Daily Beast.
According to two senior military officers and a defense ministry official in CAR, more than 200 so-called former rebels, who worked for the Union for Peace (UPC) militant group and were also part of a coalition of fighters of major rebel groups created in 2020 to disrupt a Central African general election, traveled to Moscow in early February for military training that was originally expected to last for weeks at a Wagner camp.
Of the number that traveled, according to the officials, only 100 returned to CAR at the start of March while the rest remained in Russia for deployment in Ukraine.
“The initial plan, from what we [the CAR military] were told, was that these former rebels will receive combat training, including how to handle Russian-made weapons, and then return home before being deployed to places where Russian instructors work,” an officer, who works at the military headquarters in the CAR capital, Bangui, told The Daily Beast. “Later, we heard that some will stay back in Moscow and later head for Ukraine.”
“Those former rebels who haven’t returned will certainly be involved in Ukraine, backing the Russians,” a CAR defense ministry official told The Daily Beast. “It’s the reason they’ve stayed back in Russia.”
A cousin of one of those who traveled to Moscow told The Daily Beast that his relative, who wasn’t among those that returned early this month, had informed him that he’ll be fighting in Ukraine before his departure to Russia and that he himself knew six other former UPC rebels who didn’t also return home.
“They [the former rebels] were telling everyone around them that they were going to Russia to train and then travel to Ukraine afterwards,” said Hatem Awal, whose cousin fought for the UPC for a little over a year until he surrendered to CAR forces in 2021. “When we didn’t see them return with the others, we weren’t surprised.”
While dozens of ex-rebels prepare for Ukraine, the Wagner Group allegedly plan to deploy the 100 former UPC fighters who returned from Russia to the West African nation of Mali, where the private military company is assisting the country’s military junta in fighting jihadists troubling the nation.
“They [the 100 Russian-trained UPC rebels] should depart for Mali at the end of the month,” a military officer attached to CAR's defense headquarters in the capital, Bangui, told The Daily Beast. “For now, they’ve been told to spend time with their families until it’s time to travel [to Mali].”
In the last four months, hundreds of UPC rebels have surrendered to the CAR government. Led by Ali Darassa, a Nigerian national who was sanctioned last December by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the UPC—whose militants OFAC said have “killed, tortured, raped, and displaced thousands of people” since its founding in 2014—is the most powerful of CAR’s armed groups and controls large areas of the country, but incentives offered by the government and Wagner to the group’s fighters, including promises that rebels who abandoned the UPC would work closely with CAR troops and Wagner mercenaries to fight other rebels, appears to have made many switch sides.
In the same week the 100 rebels returned to Bangui, videos showing armed men posing as CAR soldiers and declaring themselves ready to fight in Ukraine began to appear on Twitter and on Russian Telegram channels (Putin, of course, has publicly encouraged foreign fighters to join Russia in Ukraine). In one of the videos, The Daily Beast identified the statue of former CAR leader Jean-Bédel Bokassa located at the entrance of the Berengo camp, near Bangui, where Wagner mercenaries are training CAR soldiers.
“Yes, the people in the videos are CAR soldiers who work closely with Russian instructors at the Berengo camp,” an officer, who works at the military headquarters in Bangui, told The Daily Beast privately. “The military headquarters really don’t determine how the soldiers there operate. The Russians do.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, several pro-Russian rallies have taken place in Bangui, with Russian mercenaries and CAR forces watching. Officials say government forces have been told to protect campaigners that display support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The government has told the military to provide adequate security to people who are rallying in support for Russia so that they don’t get targeted by armed groups,” said the officer at the military headquarters. “For the government, these pro-Russian rallies also show that the country appreciates the efforts of Russia in CAR and stands in support of what it is doing in Ukraine.”
By a United Nations estimate, more than 2,000 Russian mercenaries hired by the Wagner Group—a private military organization which exists illegally under Russian law but is funded by Putin’s close friend Yevgeny Prigozhin—were present in CAR at least up till last year. But, as The Daily Beast exclusively reported in January, that number began to shrink at the start of the year when Wagner began to pull dozens of its so-called “military instructors” from the restive African nation to Eastern Europe in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine.
Since the war began last month, Wagner has been all over the news. The Times of London reported not long after the Russian invasion that the group’s mercenaries had been flown into Ukraine from Africa on a mission to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelensky, while the Ukrainian defense ministry said on Sunday that another group of Wagner fighters arrived in Ukraine on a mission to kill the Ukrainian leader and take out other high-ranking Ukrainian politicians, including Presidential Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.
Last week, Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top commander of U.S. military forces in Africa (AFRICOM) told VOA that the Wagner Group has tried to enlist some of its personnel in Africa to fight for Russia, saying AFRICOM is “seeing some efforts to recruit Wagner units for Ukraine.” Those working closely with the Russians in Africa say Wagner units have now expanded to include African fighters.
"Because they are working closely with the Russian instructors, we can practically say the former UPC rebels are a unit of the Russians," said the CAR military officer at the military headquarters. "No one is disputing that fact."