MOSCOW — The three Russian journalists ventured into the violent and rebel-plagued Central African Republic as part of a daring investigation into the Kremlin’s use of mercenaries to project power into Africa, Syria and other distant lands. Three days later, they were dead, supposedly shot by robbers on a road many others traveled that day without incident.
The journalists, Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguev and Kirill Radchenko, part of an independent Russian news media outfit, had traveled to the former French colony in central Africa, to investigate the activities of the Wagner Group, a private military force founded by a former Russian intelligence officer and linked to an associate of President Vladimir V. Putin.
Their murder by unknown assailants not only shines a spotlight on the role of private military contractors, one of the murkiest features of Russia’s effort to reclaim its status as a great power. It also illuminates Russia’s campaign to return to Africa, a zone of particularly violent East-West rivalry during the Cold War that Moscow mostly withdrew from after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia under Mr. Putin has pushed hard to regain a presence in lost territory, asserting itself not only in former Soviet lands like Ukraine but also farther afield in Syria and now Africa, where, during the Cold War, Moscow and the West supported opposing sides in conflicts from the Horn of Africa to Mozambique and Angola.
Moscow’s expanding diplomatic, and sometimes military, footprint has also been seen in other African nations, including Sudan, whose leader, Omar al-Bashir, has been ostracized by the West but embraced by the Kremlin. In November, he proposed to Mr. Putin that Moscow build a military base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.
“Russia takes Africa without a fight,” proclaimed a recent analysis of Russia’s strategy in Africa by Ria Novosti, a state news agency in Moscow.
The three journalists, whose funerals were held in Moscow on Tuesday, died in what seems to have been a targeted attack while driving after sundown near Sibut, a town 115 miles north of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, and where, according to a recent United Nations report, Russian military “instructors” have been deployed to support the impoverished republic’s security forces.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said that Russia had sent 175 such instructors to the Central African Republic — five military personnel and the rest civilians, whose affiliations Russia has not disclosed.
While impossible to prove in the chaos of the Central African Republic, several Western experts on Africa said in interviews that they believed that the civilians were affiliated with the Wagner Group, a private security company tied to Yevgeny V. Prigozhin.
Mr. Prigozhin is the St. Petersburg businessman close to Mr. Putin who was indicted by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, for interfering in the 2016 presidential election through his troll factory, the Internet Research Agency.
It is unclear whether the Wagner Group — which has no publicly declared telephone number, office or website — is really a private company or, as some experts believe, just a vehicle used by military intelligence for operations that the Russian state wants to keep at arm’s length but which offer moneymaking opportunities for insiders connected to the state.
The Russian news media organization that sponsored the journalists’ trip to Africa, the Investigation Control Center, which is funded by the exiled Russian billionaire Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, said that a vehicle carrying the three journalists traveled north from Sibut along with another car but that it was only the journalists’ vehicle that was attacked.
The journalists, according to their colleagues in Moscow, had planned to head east from Sibut to a gold mining area near Ndassima where Russians have also been sighted, but instead they abruptly changed their itinerary and drove north instead.
The only known witness to what happened on the road — the journalists’ African driver, who somehow survived the attack — has been kept incommunicado by the authorities, adding another layer of mystery to the murder of the Russian journalists and their country’s activities in central Africa.
“Many things don’t add up,” said Lewis Mudge, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, who said he had recently driven along the same road where the Russians were killed.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, which usually responds with fury to attacks on Russian citizens overseas and vows to hold the culprits responsible, expressed regret over the killings but came close to blaming the victims, stressing that they had not obtained official accreditation and were visiting the Central African Republic as tourists, not reporters.
State-controlled media outlets, which serve as a nationalist bullhorn primed to fulminate against any perceived foreign slight against Russian citizens, focused their ire not on the journalists’ killers but on Mr. Khodorkovsky, the self-exiled oligarch whose money helped fund the investigation into the activities of Russian private military contractors like the Wagner Group.
The United States Treasury Department last year imposed sanctions against the mercenary company, also known as PMC Wagner, accusing it of recruiting and sending soldiers to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk region of Ukraine. Wagner recruits have also been sent to Syria, where scores and possibly hundreds of them died in February during a firefight with American forces.
The often strange story of Russia’s return, after years of absence, to Africa began last October when Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, met in the Russian, Black Sea resort of Sochi with the president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and discussed, an official statement said, “the considerable potential for partnership in mineral resources exploration” and in other areas of “practical cooperation.”
Mr. Touadéra has since appointed a Russian, Valery Zakharov, as his national security adviser.
An early sign of where cooperation between the two countries was going came in January when the children of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the African country’s former dictator, complained of “Russian soldiers” wandering “half-naked” near their father’s tomb in Berengo, southwest of Bangui, the country’s capital.
In a letter of protest issued through a Paris lawyer, the children said that the mysterious Russians had, without permission, set up tents in a derelict palace in Berengo and defiled a memorial shrine to Mr. Bokassa, a brutal ruler trailed by accusations of cannibalism who declared himself emperor of the African nation in 1976.
The Berengo encampment was the first stop made by the journalists after their arrival in the Central African Republic at the end of July. They where denied entry by a Russian-speaking African and told to come back after they had obtained official approval for a visit from the Defense Ministry. They never got permission and instead headed north to Sibut, the site of another Russian encampment.
Nothing has come to light so far that rules out what Russian and Central African Republic authorities have both said happened on the road from Sibut on the night of July 30: a random attack by violent thieves in a country plagued by violence.
But so many Russian journalists at odds with the Kremlin have died in recent years that the killings in central Africa have again generated feverish speculation in Russia about who might be responsible. The finger-pointing has been directed mostly at the Wagner Group, which was the focus of the journalists’ aborted investigation. But that accusation has had to compete with an alternative theory, promoted by an obscure African news media outlet, that France, the republic’s former colonial master, engineered the killings as a warning to Moscow to stay clear of its turf.
France for decades regarded its former colony, which gained independence in 1960, as part of its “chasse gardée” — or private reserve — in Africa. It regularly sent troops to Bangui and beyond to protect or topple leaders in the Central African Republic, depending on whether they had found favor or not in Paris.
But French primacy and interest have waned in recent years as incessant violence crippled France’s main business venture in the country, a big uranium mine at Bakouma, and led local leaders in Bangui to turn to Moscow for additional protection.
The United Nations, which has a peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic, imposed an arms embargo on the country in 2013 but, at Russia’s request, relaxed the blanket ban late last year, and tons of Russian military equipment began arriving at the Bangui airport in January.
A United Nations report issued in July said the Russian weapons and ammunition, airlifted to Bangui between Jan. 26 and Feb. 7, were unloaded at the airport by Russian citizens but “given that all the flights reached Bangui after sundown it was not possible to proceed with a proper inspection of the stockpile upon arrival.”
The United Nations and other organizations involved in trying to restore order demanded a detailed inspection of the weapons, which were moved to a military base called Camp de Roux in Bangui, to establish exactly what Russian arms and how many had been flown in.
“All parties concerned repeatedly committed to facilitating a detailed inspection of the stockpile stored at Camp de Roux in Bangui, but that has not yet taken place,” the July report said.
The secrecy surrounding the shipments reinforced concerns among some United Nations officials and Western diplomats that Russia, while perhaps genuinely interested in helping international efforts to stabilize the Central African Republic, also has its own separate agenda.
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