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US News Diamonds, Warlords and Mercenaries: Russia’s New Playbook in Africa

14:00  30 september  2019
14:00  30 september  2019 Source:   msn.com

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a person riding a horse: An artisanal diamond mine in the government-controlled area of Boda in the Central African Republic. © Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times An artisanal diamond mine in the government-controlled area of Boda in the Central African Republic.

BANGUI, Central African Republic — BANGUI, Central African Republic — The dealer pulled back a shiny pink curtain and sprinkled the contents of two white envelopes across his desk: sparkling diamonds, more than 100 of them.

Some gems are sold legally, he explained. But many are trafficked by rebels who fight over the mines, adding fuel to a six-year uprising that has killed thousands and displaced more than a million people here in the Central African Republic.

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Now, hoping to wrest control over the diamond trade and piece the country back together, the government has turned to a new partner — Russia — in what some lawmakers fear is a dangerous bargain that trades one threat for another.

Russian mercenaries have fanned out across the nation to train local soldiers. A former Russian spy has been installed by the Central African president as his top security adviser. Russians shuttled warlords to peace talks with the government, helping lead to a deal with more than a dozen armed groups to stop fighting.

And the central figure behind the Russian involvement, according to local and Western officials, is Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a confidant of President Vladimir V. Putin who was indicted in the United States last year, accused of helping to finance “information warfare” and disrupt the 2016 American election.

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a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Russian mercenaries guarding the president and other government officials during May Day celebrations in Bangui. © Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times Russian mercenaries guarding the president and other government officials during May Day celebrations in Bangui.

The Central African government has welcomed the Russians, betting that stability will enable it to sell more diamonds legally and use the money to rebuild the nation.

“The rebellion in our country has cost us a lot,” said Albert Yaloke Mokpeme, the spokesman for the Central African president. “No one came to our aid except the Russian Federation.”

“With the help of Russia,” he added, “we will be able to secure our diamond mines.”

The diamond merchant, Arab Arab Koussay, who runs one of the country’s largest dealerships, fingered the gems on his desk and expressed a similar view. “We can’t control everything in this country,” he said.

But Russia’s help comes at a cost. Its representatives have struck deals with the government to mine diamonds where the trade is legal — one of many signs that Russia’s push into the country is closely tied to the profits it can reap.

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Russian operatives have even partnered with murderous rebels to obtain diamonds in areas where the trade is outlawed, cashing in on the very lawlessness they have been brought in to end, according to members of the Central African government, Western officials and some of the warlords themselves.

More broadly, the fact that Russian mercenaries are training the nation’s troops has unnerved some lawmakers. Human rights violations in the country are so common that the United Nations imposed an arms embargo against Central African soldiers. But the Russian trainers have been accused of abuses as well, including rounding up innocent bystanders in mass sweeps.

claude semal wearing a suit and tie: The central figure behind the Russian involvement, according to local and Western officials, is Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a confidant of President Vladimir V. Putin. © Mikhail Metzel/TASS, via Getty Images The central figure behind the Russian involvement, according to local and Western officials, is Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a confidant of President Vladimir V. Putin. “I keep thinking of what kind of army we are going to have if they are trained by Russians,” said Hamadou Aboubakar Kabirou, a member of Parliament.

Mr. Prigozhin has ties to mining, security and logistics companies that have been set up in the nation since 2017, according to American intelligence officials, Western diplomats and a security analyst who provided registration documents connecting him to some of the businesses. Mr. Prigozhin also personally showed up for peace talks with rebel groups several months ago, according to one warlord present.

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Mr. Prigozhin’s role in the country has set off international alarms. Three Russian journalists were killed last year under suspicious circumstances while looking into his ties to diamond and gold mining. The Central African government has said it is investigating the deaths, Russian officials have denied involvement, and Mr. Prigozhin’s spokesman declined to answer questions about the companies’ mining or security operations in the country.

As in the American election, the battle for control over the country is also being fought in the media and on social media. As Russian mercenaries connected to Mr. Prigozhin were streaming into the nation, Facebook sites were popping up with pro-Russian themes, showing photographs of local residents in T-shirts bearing a giant red heart and the slogan “Russia 2018.”

Other soft-power tactics have helped the Russians build, and potentially profit from, deepening ties. Billboards sprouted around the capital, Bangui, with pictures of local soldiers under a Russian flag.

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A mining company linked to Mr. Prigozhin has built hospitals and slaughterhouses, sponsored a soccer tournament and held a “Miss Centrafrique” beauty contest. It created a Russian-focused radio station, with a broadcast range that reached farther than state radio.

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It even made a propaganda-style cartoon for children, with a powerful Russian bear racing through a wintry forest, charging across the globe and coming to the rescue of its embattled friends in the African nation.

Analysts and some diplomats say the Central African Republic has offered Russia a blueprint that it can export to other oil- and mineral-rich nations in exchange for mining rights.

In Europe and the United States, Russia has used hacking, disinformation and other strategies to try to penetrate and destabilize Western democracies. But here in the Central African Republic, analysts say, it appears to have a different goal: asserting its global importance and reaping the financial rewards.

As the United States has pulled away from engaging Africa, withdrawing troops and offering no broad policy agenda, Russia has pushed hard into the continent, expanding its presence in unstable nations with abundant natural resources.

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“They’re collecting friends and allies, and they’re finding permissive environments to sell their wares and gain commercial opportunities,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They are using the U.S. retreat to present themselves as a global power.”

In the Central African Republic, tumult has reigned since 2012, when Muslim rebels, fed up with being overlooked by the government, invaded the capital and carried out a coup. Christian groups formed to beat back the rebels, and the nation veered toward genocide.

Elections took place in 2016, but violent armed groups still rampage against almost anyone who gets in their way. More than a quarter of the people have fled their homes. The economy is crippled, and most of the population lives in poverty.

Despite the wealth of diamonds here, the deprivation is often extreme. At one market near mines, some women each sold a single onion — cut into quarters because they had nothing else to offer and customers could not afford to buy a whole one, anyway.

The Central African Republic has experienced few years of stability since breaking free from French colonial rule in the 1960s. Many of the old upheavals, too, centered around control of diamonds. The nation is teeming with them.

They are found at the bottom of holes dug by men paid $3 a day. They sit in the ground outside a dilapidated encampment where a 14-year-old girl was shot in the face in a spray of gunfire by rebels fighting over the jewels.

A vestige of the French colonial past in Bakala. © Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times A vestige of the French colonial past in Bakala. In 2013, the Kimberley Process, the international effort to block armed groups from profiting from the diamond trade, deemed the nation’s stones “blood diamonds” and banned all sales from the country.

About three years ago, Kimberley Process officials signed off on exports of diamonds from mines in some areas west of the capital, satisfied that the government had wrested control there.

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But that is a sliver of what the government could earn if it controlled more mines across the country.

“The world sees our diamonds as blood diamonds today, but we’ll no longer have blood diamonds,” said Léopold Mboli Fatran, the nation’s minister of mines. “We are going to get control over all our diamonds.”

An illegal diamond trade still flourishes. A man on the street quietly offered to sell diamonds to journalists from The New York Times as they were passing by. At a police station nearby, an officer, without prompting, pulled out a tissue that he said contained a diamond, adding that he had seized it from illegal miners.

“It’s for the state,” he said, tucking it back in his pocket, “not for me.”

Last year, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra fired his own top adviser after a video was leaked showing the adviser displaying piles of hundreds of diamonds — several pounds worth — leading to his arrest, government officials said.

“There’s always fraud: from the collectors, in the mines, from the government,” said Sylvain Marius N’Gbatouka, the cabinet director for the mining ministry.

a group of people on a beach: The Central African government has welcomed the Russian presence, hoping that stability will enable it to sell more diamonds legally and use the money to rebuild the nation. © Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times The Central African government has welcomed the Russian presence, hoping that stability will enable it to sell more diamonds legally and use the money to rebuild the nation. Russians have entered this fraught scenario.

In October 2017, a year after France declared its own peacekeeping mission complete and generally disengaged from the country, the Central African president traveled to Sochi to ask Russia for help. While United Nations peacekeepers remained in the country, his nation’s soldiers were still barred from receiving arms, and he complained publicly about the void France had left.

Later that month, Lobaye Invest, a mining company, was registered in Bangui, followed by a security company called Sewa Security Services 12 days later, according to registration information for the companies. Both are affiliated with Mr. Prigozhin, according to American intelligence officials, Western diplomats and a former Central African government official.

In December 2017, Russia then lobbied for — and received — an exemption to the United Nations arms embargo. The next month, the Russian government sent five military and 170 civilian trainers to Bangui.

Sewa employees joined the presidential guard, and after a round of violence by rebel groups in 2018, Valeriy Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence official, was installed as the top security adviser to the nation’s president, Mr. Touadéra.

The president soon asked for dozens more Russian mercenaries, who spread into training centers across the country.

Central African officials began distributing a free newspaper with articles advancing Russian interests. Russian officials also visited local media, offering training, cash and equipment — something French and American officials also do. But some journalists who refused the Russian help were threatened, according to Saber Jendoubi, a former radio journalist in Bangui who now lives in France. Mr. Jendoubi said he was tailed and photographed by Russian operatives when he began asking questions about Russian involvement in the media.

Brian Dennehy et al. sitting at a table: Valeriy Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence official now installed as the top security adviser to the nation’s president, at the May Day celebrations. © Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times Valeriy Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence official now installed as the top security adviser to the nation’s president, at the May Day celebrations. Russian support among lawmakers grew as well. Members of Parliament were gathered outside the capital and bribed to vote out the Parliament president, who had been viewed as unfriendly to Russian interests, according to a member of Parliament and to a record of the payments signed by lawmakers.

Lobaye, the mining company tied to Mr. Prigozhin, began work in diamond mines in the small swath of the country from which the gems can be legally exported, government officials said. But diplomats said the Russian ambassador complained that the activities there were not producing much.

Around the same time, the company paid to shuttle warlords to peace talks in Sudan between Central African armed groups. Mr. Prigozhin showed up at the meetings, too, according to the warlord present. Afterward, the nation’s president offered a letter of thanks to Mr. Putin, addressed to “Mr. President and dear friend,” for helping organize the discussions, according to a copy released by the United Nations.

In February 2019, as Russian officials looked on, more than a dozen armed groups signed a peace agreement with the Central African government. The deal, which the United Nations supports, puts warlords accused of sweeping crimes in place at cabinet-level positions.

At a May Day parade, the warlords sat alongside the nation’s president under a V.I.P. tent, as white-gloved majorettes and band members passed playing duct-taped tubas. Masked national soldiers patrolled the street, and Russian mercenaries stood guard.

a group of people wearing costumes: Masked Central African soldiers stood guard at May Day celebrations in Bangui. © Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times Masked Central African soldiers stood guard at May Day celebrations in Bangui. American officials now estimate the number of Russian mercenaries at more than 400, some in rebel-controlled areas where they can be spotted riding in white pickup trucks and drinking in local bars at night. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs would not say how many Russian contractors were deployed in the Central African Republic, but emphasized that they had been sent as instructors with the consent of the United Nations.

“Many of them have already started executing tasks related to combating insurgents and guarding civilians,” the ministry said in a statement.

At a United Nations Security Council meeting in June, Alexander Repkin, the Russian representative, insisted his country was merely hoping to “normalize the situation without any hidden agenda.”

But Russian mining operations have been spotted in areas where the gems are considered blood diamonds, according to diplomats, local officials and two warlords whose groups operate there. The areas offer the most abundant, best-quality gems, which are regularly smuggled through Cameroon, Chad and Sudan, government officials said.

One former government official said Russian mercenaries have flown private planes — near to a site where they are training local soldiers — and loaded them with diamonds. Russian contractors are also digging up diamonds near the border with Sudan, according to the local officials and warlords.

“They are making these deals in the dark of night,” said Hassan Bouba, a rebel leader who was recently appointed a cabinet-level minister under the peace deal and has been linked to the illicit diamond trade himself.

a group of people sitting in front of a crowd: A school for orphans in Bambari. The average class size is more than 200 students. © Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times A school for orphans in Bambari. The average class size is more than 200 students. The three Russian journalists investigating Mr. Prigozhin’s ties to diamond and gold mining were killed last year at a mine where such blood diamonds are extracted, near the city of Bambari, long a crossroads for violence.

Fighting between rebel groups near there has forced farmers into ramshackle camps, where people have nothing but threadbare shirts, ragged dresses and ripped pants. At a school for orphans, where the class size averaged more than 200, children were learning phrases in French: “I’m hungry” and “I’m thirsty” were written on a chalkboard.

The president, Mr. Touadéra, tried to visit Bambari for a ceremony this year, despite warnings from rebels. Gunshots chased away cabinet members and their security contingents, scuttling the trip.

The next day, the Central African military and their Russian mercenary trainers carried out mass arrests, sweeping up dozens of Muslims they presumed were part of the fighting, according to residents and a United Nations official.

One 38-year-old shop owner said he was rounded up by local soldiers, who deposited him at the Russian training facility nearby. Over the course of four days, he said he was hog-tied, beaten and cut repeatedly by more than a dozen Russians in civilian clothes.

When he wouldn’t confess to being a rebel, one of the Russians hacked off his finger, he said. Nearby, he saw another man, with two fingers missing, lying in a pool of blood, he said. The United Nations alerted the Central African government about allegations of “detention and torture” carried out by “individuals of Russian nationality” and shared documents supporting the claims with government officials.

a man standing in a dark room: “It’s like death has become banal here,” said Pasquale Serra, an artist from Bangui. © Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times “It’s like death has become banal here,” said Pasquale Serra, an artist from Bangui. Russia’s foreign ministry called the claims “bogus.”

“Russia provides its assistance in strict accordance” with international law to “bring about a lasting settlement of the protracted violent conflict,” it said in a statement.

Mr. Prigozhin’s spokesman also dismissed the allegations. In a statement, he said that French forces, which have also been accused of human rights abuses in the country in the past, had paid a militant to lie about being tortured, calling it “a fictional incident that discredits Russian citizens.”

For now, the peace accord that the Russians helped broker mostly seems to be holding. But many victims of atrocities wonder whether they will see justice, especially now that warlords are in government and rebel fighters are being incorporated into the military.

“It’s like death has become banal here,” said Pasquale Serra, an artist from Bangui who organized a ceremony for families to place bricks in a circle, representing their lost loved ones.

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Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington; Jaime Yaya Barry from Dakar, Senegal; and Oleg Matsnev from Moscow.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt from Washington; Jaime Yaya Barry from Dakar, Senegal; and Oleg Matsnev from Moscow.

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