Wagner troops arrive in Central African Republic ahead of referendum

By Judicael Yongo

BANGUI (Reuters) – Dozens of troops from Russia’s Wagner private military company have arrived in Central African Republic to help secure a constitutional referendum on July 30 that could see the president extend his term, the presidency said on Monday.

Hundreds of Wagner troops departed CAR days after a short-lived mutiny in Russia led by the group’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, that raised questions about the future of Wagner’s military and commercial operations in countries including CAR.

The government had said previously that the troops’ movement was part of a rotation of forces rather a withdrawal.

“Every year there is a rotation. Some go and others arrive with logistics and they do this regularly at all levels, on the military and administrative assistance,” spokesperson Albert Yaloke Mokpem told Reuters, commenting on the new arrivals.

“They are also here to secure the constitutional referendum,” the spokesperson said, declining to say how many troops had arrived.

However, he acknowledged that photos seen on social media showing dozens on the tarmac were the newly arrived mercenaries.

A senior CAR military official in the capital told Reuters that hundreds of troops had arrived.

The country of around 5.5 million people and rich in gold, diamonds, and timber has struggled to find stability since independence in 1960.

The country was thrown into deeper chaos in 2013 when then-president Francois Bozize was ousted by a rebellion, sparking another round of fighting between a patchwork of armed groups that control swathes of territory.

CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who was first elected in 2016, and won reelection in 2020, turned to Russia for help to tackle the rebel groups.

He is on the campaign trail for the constitutional referendum which, if passed, could remove a two-term presidential limit and enable him run again.

Russia first sent security contractors to CAR in 2018, and stepped up its support with more than 1,500 troops including instructors and soldiers fighting alongside the country’s army.

Some of the troops are part of Touadera’s security detail and are regularly seen with him.

(Reporting by Judicael Yongo; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Anait Miridzhanian and Alison Williams)