An unknown number of fighters from Russian mercenary group Wagner have been preparing to leave the Central African Republic, foreign sources said, reports denied by the government on Friday.
The future of the private paramilitary group led by Yevgeny Prigozhin is uncertain after it launched a short-lived mutiny against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government on June 23 and 24.
Wagner fighters seized Russian army sites and advanced towards Moscow before standing down under a deal struck with Putin and mediated by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko whose details remain murky.
But its activities abroad, particularly in Syria and several African countries, have not been publicly called into question.
“Departures are imminent. They (Wagner) are cutting back,” a French source close to the matter told AFP, saying the move was “probably” due to Wagner’s “current difficulties” and the CAR government’s limited financial resources.
A foreign security source said posts had been abandoned and that Ilyushin-76 Russian troop carrying planes had taken off, adding that the reports were “rather well founded”.
The aircraft has been frequently used since 2018 to move Wagner fighters to and from the capital Bangui.
A French security source said the movements were caused by “huge uncertainties over the payment of wages in the coming months and worries about possible reprisals against the families of mercenaries who remain with Wagner”.
These Wagner operatives have reportedly been offered the choice of returning to civilian life, enrolling in the army or other private Russian companies, the source added.
Fidele Gouandjika, a special adviser to President Faustin-Archange Touadera, denied Wagner forces were leaving the CAR.
“They are all here… and what the media is saying are nothing but dishonest allegations,” he said on Friday.
Russian paramilitaries were deployed to the CAR in 2018 as the country, one of the world’s poorest, was engulfed by a civil war.
The conflict broke out in 2013 when then president Francois Bozize was ousted by a rebel coalition called the Seleka, drawn largely from the Muslim minority.
The coup triggered a sectarian bloodbath between the Seleka and rival forces known as the anti-Balaka.
After the end of last month’s mutiny in Russia, the CAR said Wagner activities in the country would “continue”.
Gouandjika had previously said Russia would send the CAR “a new contingent” of fighters if it was no longer in agreement with Wagner.