Putin’s Prison Recruiting Scheme Takes a Big, Desperate Turn
ABUJA, Nigeria—Russia’s infamous Wagner Group is freeing hardened rebels held in jail cells in the Central African Republic and deploying them overseas, including in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, two senior military officers in CAR told The Daily Beast.
According to the sources in CAR, where armed rebels have controlled large parts of the country for about a decade, dozens of men held in military and police custody for crimes such as rape and murder are now being recruited into Wagner’s local wing, which includes hundreds of fighters commonly referred to as “Black Russians.” Many of the recruits, the officers said, are rebels the military consider to be terrorists because of their unlawful use of violence and intimidation against civilians and armed forces in pursuit of political aims.
“Since October, they [Wagner paramilitaries] have been walking into military and police cells and releasing rebels, including those held for attacking Bokolobo village [in southern CAR] in May and for raping women and girls,” an officer who works at the military headquarters in CAR’s capital, Bangui, told The Daily Beast. “Nobody can stop them because the government has given them so much power to act the way they want.”
Another military officer told The Daily Beast that rebels held for attacking and killing CAR soldiers during an assault on a military camp in the southeastern town of Bakouma town in April have also been freed by Russian mercenaries. The officer said Wagner paramilitaries told military officials that the released rebels would be working for the group overseas.
“They [Wagner] said they needed urgent manpower in Mali and Ukraine,” the officer, who works with CAR’s army, told The Daily Beast. “I think more than 20 people we’ve been holding [for very serious crimes] have been released.”
Many of CAR’s high-risk criminals, particularly rebels accused of harming, raping, and killing civilians are held in military and police cells rather than in understaffed and poorly secured conventional prisons. Although the detainees are under the custody of local forces, Wagner mercenaries—who’ve been active in CAR since the government turned to Russia for help in securing arms and paramilitaries in 2017—continue to exert influence over the Central African nation’s security agencies.
Among the prisoners released by Russian mercenaries is a notorious fighter from the Union for Peace (UPC) rebel group known by his colleagues as Mohammed, according to a former UPC member. The released rebel fighter is believed to have been involved in the Bokolobo attack in May. He allegedly joined Wagner’s local unit in late October and is now among the dozens of Black Russians believed to have been deployed to Ukraine.
“[Mohammed] and four others were accused of raping and killing civilians in Bokolobo and detained for months by soldiers at Camp du Kassaï [in Bangui],” Ali, who was recruited by Wagner Group after quitting UPC last December, told The Daily Beast. “We were surprised to see that he had become a Black Russian and was even shortlisted for Ukraine.”