Three Russian journalists died in the Central African Republic who were filming an investigation about Russian mercenary soldiers from the Wagner private military company in one of the world’s most dangerous countries. Wagner’s financial sponsor is believed to be Russian businessman, Evgeny Prigozhin, suspected of meddling in the U.S. elections. The Bell investigated what Prigozhin’s fighters are up to in Africa.
The circumstances of the attack
- The journalists who died — war correspondent Orkhan Dzhemal, documentary film director Alexander Rastorguev, and cameraman Kirill Radchenko, went to the Central African Republic to shoot a documentary film about Wagner’s Russian military instructors. This was a joint project with Investigation Control Centre, (TsUR) — one of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s media projects.
- According to AFP, the car which Dzhemal, Radchenko and Rastorguev were travelling in on Monday night was ambushed, which was exposed by unknown persons, when the journalists returned to Sibut (where the Russian military instructors’ base is located) from the north of the country, from the city of Kaga-Bandoro, which is actually not under the control of the CAR government. According to the driver who survived the attack, armed attackers emerged from the bush and opened fire on the vehicle, and the passengers died there. The journalists’ bodies were found 23 kilometers from Sibut.
More scoops and weekly analyics on Russia in The Bell newsletter. Subscribe now!
- Orkhan Dzhemal’s wife, Irina Gordienko, told The Bell that she identified her husband’s body in a photograph. She also said that she was contacted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, who promised to bring his body home as soon as possible and clarified that the identification process will continue into tomorrow.
- A source from the CAR police told Interfax that the motive behind the attack might have been robbery, as the journalists were carrying expensive equipment with them. There are, so far, no other theories.
- Orkhan Dzhemal was one of Russia’s best known war correspondents. At the beginning of the 2000s, he led the political department of Novaya Gazeta, and then was a reporter for Russian Newsweek and Izvestiya. Dzhemal reported from the wars in Georgia (he wrote a book about the war), Libya, Syria, and east Ukraine. Recently, the only publication which regularly featured Dzhemal was Echo Moscow.
- Alexander Rastorguev was a documentary film director. His most famous piece was the project “Term” («Срок») about the Russian protests of 2012, which was filmed together with former NTV journalist, Alexey Pivovarov, and documentary filmmaker, Pavel Kostomarov.
- Kirill Radchenko was a freelance photographer, and photographs credited with his surname were published on the website of ANNA News, an information agency which covers the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. In 2017, he photographed events in Syria, where there was a civil war for many years. He was 33 years old.
The investigation in Africa
The journalists’ trip was related to an investigation of the Wagner private military company, which was really actively involved in Africa. We will share everything that is known about this.
- The Wagner private military company is connected to Evgeny Prigozhin – who is referred to as “Putin’s chef” because companies close to him provided catering services to the Kremlin. They also received Ministry of Defense contracts worth several billion and delivered food to Moscow schools.
- It became clear at the end of 2017 that Russian private military companies, including Wagner, had been sent to Africa, but then it was only known about their involvement in Sudan. The Bell, in turn, uncovered that Prigozhin’s companies appeared to have a commercial interest in that country – right after last year’s negotiations between Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev with Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir. A company believed to be related to Prigozhin, M Invest, signed a concession agreement for gold mining in Sudan (we wrote about this in detail here). At the same time, Wagner’s hired troops trained Sudanese military divisions, which was then confirmed by four people who spoke with The Bell, including individuals from rival private military companies. One of these said that Wagner employees are also training the CAR army.
- The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in March a “strengthening of national military structures in CAR” and that Russia sent 5 military and 170 civilian instructors to that country, as well as a shipment of small arms – this was all at the request of the president of the CAR, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and with the agreement of the UN Security Council.
- The investigative group, Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), wrote that civil instructors might be from the Wagner private military company, and before that, this was also reported by several French media outlets.
- In its statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not mention Wagner, but said that in its agreement with the CAR, Russia also is looking into the possibility of the “joint development of natural resources” in that country, and that several mining concessions had begun to be realized in 2018.
- It is not clear if Prigozhin’s structures are behind these concessions. But, it is possible that the universal operation scheme was implemented before an agreement was signed about gold mining in Sudan, as Wagner’s troops were seen in Syria. Later, it became clear that Prigozhin’s structures agreed with the Syrian government to participate in the liberation, defense and development of local oil and gas fields. In exchange, the company would be given access to ¼ of the oil and gas produced on liberated territories. These agreements were agreed in final just before the bloody encounter of Wagner troops with U.S. forces in the oil and gas province of Deir ez-Zor, The Bell learned.
The Bell’s editorial team would like to express its condolences to the relatives and friends of the journalists who were killed.
Irina Malkova, Peter Mironenko, Anton Baev