UN investigators have urged the Central African Republic to sever ties with Russia's Wagner group, saying the private security force has violently harassed and intimidated civilians.
A group of UN experts, headed by rapporteur Jelena Aparac, said in a statement that journalists, aid workers, peacekeepers and minorities had also been the target of Wagner operatives in the landlocked African country.
Russia has sent hundreds of military instructors to arm and train government troops to fight rebels in the resource-rich former French colony of about five million people that collapsed into civil war in late 2012.
“We call on the CAR government to end all relationships with private military and security personnel, particularly the Wagner group,” the statement read.
“We are extremely concerned about intimidation and recent reports of violent harassment by private military and security contractors against individuals and communities.”
The UN experts said many security forces — including Wagner — were behind systemic, grave human rights abuses, including torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary detention and executions without a trial.
They also received reports that Wagner officers "have committed rape and sexual violence against women, men, and young girls in the many parts of the country", noting that that victims were too scared to formally complain for fear of repercussions, the experts said.
“We urge the authorities to comply with their obligations under international law to hold accountable all perpetrators of grave violations,” the group said.
Visiting West Africa this week, US envoy to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield expressed “grave concerns” that Wagner forces would be sent to Mali, where the junta is reportedly considering a deal with the group.
“Russian mercenaries engage in human rights abuses of civilians, extract steep costs in payments and mineral concessions, and deprive local citizens of critically needed resources," Ms Thomas-Greenfield said.
The Wagner group is reputedly connected to the Kremlin as well as to President Vladimir Putin — though Moscow denies any involvement with it. The group's mercenaries are reportedly present in other African countries, as well as in Libya and Syria.
The CAR has been wracked by violence since the Seleka coalition of mostly Muslim rebels seized power in March 2013. The army, backed by UN peacekeepers as well as Russian and Rwandan troops, has been battling the rebels in recent months.