UYO, Nigeria—When Russian journalists Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev, and Orkhan Dzhemal arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) on Friday last week, they wanted to spend a fortnight investigating a private Russian security company operating in the country and gathering information about Russia’s interests in diamond, gold, and uranium mining in the restive nation.
Although there are some conflicting accounts, it appears the trio departed the capital, Bangui, late Monday night on their way to meet with a United Nations representative in the town of Bambari, about 380 kilometers away. But they never got there. They reportedly were ambushed and killed by about 10 men wearing turbans and speaking Arabic, according to the driver of their vehicle who survived the attack.
The U.N. said on Wednesday that its peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic, known as MINUSCA, found the bodies of the journalists “with multiple gunshot wounds, along with an abandoned vehicle, 33 kilometers north of Sibut, in Kemo Prefecture,” which would have been about halfway to their destination.
According to the CNC (Chinese) news agency, locals in Sibut said that the attack was unusual, that the assailants seemed most interested in the “tall and muscular man” (Radchenko, the cameraman) and they wanted to search his pockets, but the journalist resisted and they shot him in front of his friends.
“The bodies were transferred to a U.N. hospital in Sibut and were then transferred to a local hospital in Bangui by national authorities,” U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters in New York. “The circumstances of the incident have not yet been established.” Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs planned to transport the bodies of the three killed reporters to Moscow on Sunday morning.
The journalists had been assigned to travel to Africa by the Investigations Management Center (IMC), a project funded by former Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the most influential critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The IMC’s manager, Russian senior investigative reporter Andrei Konyakhin, sounded heartbroken on Thursday when he talked to The Daily Beast. “I am looking at dozens of scary photographs of my dead friends, at their wounds,” Konyakhin said. “Somebody just piled up their dead bodies on the ground; their faces are covered with blood, I assume that their kidnappers first beat our guys up, then executed them by shooting right in their hearts.”
Radchenko, Rastorguyev and Dzhema were focusing their report on the activities of Wagner, a private Russian military firm with links to the Kremlin and to the military intelligence agency known as the GRU. Its involvement in the Central African Republic is believed to have begun in January this year, when Russia began shipping arms to CAR along with five active duty military and 170 civilian instructors, many of whom presumably are ex-Russian military, to train two army battalions. It had won an exemption to a United Nations arms embargo in order to contribute small arms and ammunition to the country’s chronically weak military, which needed help to keep very determined rebel groups at bay.
But the Wagner Group is something special. Some have called it Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “private army.” The organization is led by Dmitry Utkin, who was once a member of the Russian special forces and is currently under U.S. sanctions for aiding Russian-backed separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
(According to a CNN report, Utkin was once head of security for Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin. Prigozhin was one of 13 Russians indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. He became famous as a restaurateur, and earned the nickname,“Putin's chef.” Russian business outlet RBC reported a year ago that Utkin’s name appeared in a corporate database as the general director of one of Prigozhin's companies.)
As the exiled Khodorkovsky pointed out on his Facebook page after the reporters’ deaths were announced, in Russia “the Power too often likes to cover its dark business with a reference to ‘private persons.’” In Russia, Khodorkovsky noted, mercenary activity is regulated by opaque laws and may be a criminal offense. Yet the most powerful people of the state “are not shy about talking about this practice with approval, which makes the situation particularly dangerous.”
The Central African Republic, for its part, has a deeply troubled post-colonial history, including some wildly corrupt leaders and foreign intrigues aimed at securing its rich deposits of gold, diamonds, and other minerals. (In the 1970s it was ruled by the self-declared Emperor Bokassa, who liked to favor visiting dignitaries with diamonds gifts.)
The country descended into conflict anew in 2013, when a largely Muslim coalition of rebels called the Seleka toppled the government, causing predominantly Christian militias known as the anti-Balaka to fight back. The ensuing sectarian violence cost thousands of lives, forcing France, the former colonial power, to deploy troops to the country. The French later gave way to MINUSCA.
CAR was relatively calm after Faustin-Archange Touadera was sworn in as president in March 2016 and immediately promised to make it “a united country, a country of peace, a country [of] development." But violence returned not long after, and fighting has continued to the present. With CAR facing an escalating conflict, and with very little backing from the West, Russia saw an opportunity and stepped in with a promise to deliver 5,200 rifles and a variety of other light weapons by the end of 2018. Today, a Russian serves as Touadera’s security adviser and at least 40 Russians are in his presidential guard. Contractors from Wagner are scattered at several locations around the impoverished nation.
Like all of Russia’s dealings with CAR authorities, including several bilateral deals both governments have signed, details of Wagner’s operations in the troubled nation are shrouded in secrecy.
“If you ask government officials about the Russians, they will ask you to shut up and even threaten you,” Louis Kottoy, a freelance journalist based in Bangui, told The Daily Beast. “If you dare go to the site where these Russians are based for information, you’ll be chased away.”
Interestingly, Russia’s secret dealings in CAR haven’t just been with the government, but also with the rebels who control about 80 percent of the country, along with access to its gold and diamonds resources.
In the first quarter of the year, Russian officials, suspected to be Wagner representatives, reportedly met with leaders of the three major rebel groups in CAR, including former President Michel Djotodia and Noureddine Adam of the Renaissance of the Central African Republic group who are both under sanctions by the U.S. and U.N. for threatening peace and blocking political transition in the African nation. None of them have yet given details of their discussions with the Russians.
According to IMC’s deputy chief editor, Anastasiya Gorshkova, who was speaking on Russia’s TV Rain, the reporters had traveled on Sunday, the eve of their assasination, to a camp at Berengo where Wagner was thought to be based, but were turned away because they lacked CAR Defense Ministry accreditation.
As one CAR journalist told The Daily Beast, getting military clearance to enter the camp, which was once the home of former President/Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa, is very difficult for civilians. An AFP journalist who gained rare access to the large facility located in Berengo, 60 kilometers west of Bangui, reported that he saw Russians in military uniforms training CAR soldiers, but he was not permitted to take photographs, shoot videos, or conduct interviews.
Konyakhin has applied for a visa to travel to CAR and investigate the murder of his colleagues. “All three of my friends got killed but their driver survived; I would like to meet with the driver and ask a few questions,” Konyakhin told The Daily Beast. He said he would also like to meet with the U.N. employe who originally invited the crew to stay with him, and who had promised to help with the project.
The day after they failed to gain access to the Berengo camp, the three journalists were due to travel one and a half days by road to Bambari to the east to meet their fixer—a U.N. employee with MINUSCO—who had “information on the situation with Russian military instructors in the CAR,” and had promised to provide contacts of officials “who were ready to communicate for the record in Bangui,” according to a post on Facebook by IMC. The U.N. representative, the organization said, was also to “help with the filming of the gold mines at Ndassima,” a town where rebel groups are battling with the government for control.
The mine at Ndassima, which once collapsed in 2014 killing 27 artisan miners, is built on a hilltop located in a forest. It originally was owned by Canada’s AXMIN gold exploration company, but was overrun by militants in late 2012. Reuters reported in 2014 that laborers toiled under the gaze of militants, to produce some 15 kilos of gold a month, which is worth roughly $350,000 on the local market, or twice that amount in international trade.
“Russian mercenaries are now guarding the gold mine,” said Kottoy, the journalist, who hails from Ndassima. “These mercenaries are responsible for the transporting equipment from Bangui to the gold mine.”
An article published last month by Africa Intelligence reported that Russia had agreed to work with the CAR government to develop the Ndassima gold mine, which is still under threat from militants. The Russian foreign ministry previously said the country was “exploring the possibilities of the mutually beneficial development of Central African natural resources,” having almost secured “mining exploration concessions.” The details of the agreement between between both parties and how they will work effectively in an area where the government doesn’t have total control are still not very clear.
Neither Russia nor CAR has denied the presence of Russian military personnel in the fragile African nation. A spokesperson for President Touadera reportedly told Jeune Afrique that officials from Russia “work at all levels and are there to observe and train the presidential guard.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that "there is no sensation in the presence of Russian instructors in CAR, no one hid anything."
But no one believes Russia’s interest is charitable, and no one has yet said anything concrete about the Russia-Central African Republic deals that underly Moscow’s interest. As the murder of the three journalists suggests, efforts to discover the truth are potentially deadly.
Long before the Russians appeared, the Central African Republic was already a dangerous place for the media. Armed men constantly looted and destroyed the operations of media organizations, forcing quite a number to shut down. Journalists, including foreign correspondents, have faced constant threats and intimidation from both the government and the rebels.
In 2014, French photographer Camille Lepage became the first foreign journalist to be killed during the fighting in CAR. The body of the 26-year-old, whose work had appeared in numerous publications, including in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, was found nearly a week after she tweeted that she was travelling with anti-Balaka militia to an area where more than 100 people had been killed two months before. Her assailants have never been identified.
A formal request submitted by the French judicial authorities to the CAR prosecutor-general’s office for certain actions to be taken yielded no result. CAR authorities said at the time that they lacked the resources to investigate, including a vehicle to visit the site of Lepage’s murder. Her mother, Maryvonne Lepage, last May made a renewed call for her daughter’s killers to be brought to justice. The employers of the three murdered Russian journalists are hoping there will get the justice that often eludes those killed in the war-torn nation.
“The best way to honor the death is to prove that their death was not misplaced,” Khodorkovsky wrote on social media. "I will make efforts to identify those responsible,” he said, and he is more deeply committed than ever to uncovering the activities of the Wagner Group.
Anna Nemtsova reported from Moscow.