Russian journalists killed in Central Africa were investigating mercenaries

Exiled opposition leader says the three reporters were examining a private security company linked to Putin

FILE PHOTO: A member of the Anti-Balaka armed militia walks next to United Nations peacekeeping soldiers in the village of Makunzi Wali, Central African Republic, April 27, 2017. Picture taken April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo
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Three Russian journalists killed in the Central African Republic on Tuesday were investigating Russian mercenaries, a Kremlim opposition leader said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry identified the dead journalists as Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal.

The three men were carrying press cards when they were killed at a roadblock outside the town of Sibut, 300 kilometres north of the capital Bangui, the Russian foreign ministry said Tuesday.

It added that the bodies had been transported to the capital.

A judicial source told AFP the men were "assassinated by unknown gunmen" at a roadblock.

"They were driving back from [the northern town] of Kaga Bandoro," a religious source added.


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Although the foreign ministry said they were carrying press cards, a Russian security official in Bangui said representatives in the CAR were not aware of any Russian journalists' presence.

Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, however, said the journalists were collaborating with him in looking into a private security company operating in CAR that is linked to a businessman associated with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr Khodorkovsky said on Facebook on Wednesday the story was entitled "Russian mercenaries"

Mr Khodorkovsky is an oil tycoon who spent 10 years in jail in Russia and now lives in exile in Europe.

'Most unstable country in the world'

Rich in minerals, including uranium, the CAR is one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world.

It plunged into violence after longtime leader Francois Bozize, a Christian, was overthrown in 2013 by a mainly Muslim rebel alliance.

Former colonial ruler France intervened militarily to push out the alliance before winding down the operation.

But President Faustin-Archange Touadera, Mr Bozize's elected successor, controls little of the country beyond the capital Bangui.

He governs with the support of a United Nations force of 13,000 troops and police, one of the biggest peacekeeping missions in the world.

Most of the CAR is controlled by 15 militias, many of whom claim to represent Christian or Muslim communities but frequently clash over natural resources and revenue, which includes roadblocks.

Assaults on peacekeepers and aid workers have been frequent, but there has been no known attacks on Russians in recent memory.

Arms race

Historically, the major player in the CAR has been France, but Russia has taken on a visible role since December, when it was authorised by the UN to provide the CAR armed forces with weapons and training.

The delivery was ostensibly aimed at shoring up the beleaguered central government and its chronically weak military – an exemption to a UN arms embargo imposed at the outbreak of conflict in 2013.

Britain, France and the United States voiced concern, demanding that deliveries be restricted to light arms and that Russia take steps to provide traceability to prevent the weapons from being sold on the black market.

A UN panel of experts on Tuesday warned that Russia's weapons supply has sparked an arms race in the rampantly unstable country, with rebels turning to traffickers in Sudan for fresh gun shipments.

The rebel factions "believe that the government is preparing for a war against them", said the report sent to the Security Council last week.

Russia is also believed to have signed a range of deals with the government since then, including security for Mr Touadera. His security adviser is also Russian.

In May, Mr Touadera met Mr Putin at an economic gathering in St. Petersburg, where he thanked the Russian leader for Moscow's help during "a difficult humanitarian situation" and "in the process of the country's consolidation and reconciliation".

In early July, Russia tried to set up a meeting in Sudan to mediate between the government and the militias, government sources say.

Mr Touadera's office said the Russian initiative was dropped as "the head of state believes there is no cause to engage in other processes while the African Union one is still under way".