EKOK, Cameroon—It was just before 5 a.m. local time when two pickup trucks allegedly carrying mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group pulled up in front of Zaza and five other men, who were patrolling the areas near the Chimbolo gold mine in the Central African Republic .
The vigilantes—who are among hundreds of men drawn from the Chimbolo village to prevent hoodlums and robbers from attacking the buildings and electrical installations in the high-crime area—were on the street leading to the gold mine near the eastern town of Bambari on Sunday. They described the men in the pickup trucks as "white soldiers" who were dressed in the same military regalia often worn by the Russian mercenary group .
"One white soldier in one of the vehicles came down from the car and ordered us to leave the area," Zaza, the leader of the vigilante unit who prefers to be identified by his nickname, told The Daily Beast. "He said he and his colleagues were going to be responsible for securing the area."
About 10 minutes later, the vigilantes said they heard a loud explosion at the Chimbolo gold mine, manned by Chinese workers after opening last week. They said the explosion was followed by gunshot sounds that lasted for more than an hour. "We could even hear the sounds of people screaming at the gold mine," said Zaza. "It sounded as if they were crying for help."
At past 6 a.m., according to the vigilantes, the same vehicles that transported the Russians to the gold mine were allegedly seen leaving the premises, driving out on the same street they had driven in on to get to the mine, the witnesses told The Daily Beast. "In the cars were the same people we saw earlier," said Zaza.
The vigilantes then rushed into the gold mine where they allegedly found the security guards, local Central Africans, tied up—with dead bodies littered around them on the ground.
"We counted nine dead bodies of Chinese men," another vigilante, who was at the scene after the attack, told The Daily Beast. "Two other Chinese men, as well as a Central African soldier, had bullet wounds mostly on their hands and legs but were still alive when we saw them."
Without providing any evidence, the Russian-allied CAR government said shortly after the incident that the attack was a "terrorist act" carried out by militants from the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC)—a fusion of major rebel groups in CAR created in December 2020 to disrupt the 2020–21 Central African general election. Their objective, according to government spokesperson Ghislain Djori, "is to discourage investors wishing to support the efforts undertaken by the President of the Republic Faustin Archange Touadera."
Following the attack, the government has promised that "perpetrators of this crime will be hunted down to their last entrenchment," but the fact that it puts the blame on the CPC, which in turn accused the Wagner Group of carrying out the killings, has led to suspect a cover-up to protect the Russians.
The attack at the Chimbolo coincided with a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has called for "severe punishment" for those behind the attack, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week.
A fallout with China as a result of the Chimbolo killings is something Putin is desperate to avoid. While Russia flounders in a military and economic quagmire over the war in Ukraine, China has emerged as Russia's biggest diplomatic, financial and technological supporter.
The allegation that Wagner is involved in the attack is likely to put a strain on the relationship between Russia and China, which has continued to provide "non-lethal" aid to Moscow throughout the war, stopping short of delivering weapons—so far.
It’s unclear if both leaders have discussed the incident. The Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday that China had dispatched a team to the mine and that "a working group from the embassy [in CAR’s capital, Bangui] has rushed to the site to coordinate the response to the attack."
"Rebels typically don't kill foreigners, but kidnap them and request for ransom to be paid for their release," Ali, a former fighter for the Union for Peace (UPC) rebel group who also previously worked for the Wagner Group in CAR, told The Daily Beast using an alias. "This is an attack only the Russians can carry out."
Even CAR's national assembly, which usually aligns with the position of the government, isn't pointing fingers at the rebels. Rather, it has accused foreign mercenaries of being behind the attack (although a statement released by tbe first vice-president of the National Assembly, Évariste Ngamana, didn't mention any country in particular).
For years, French companies dominated the mining industry in CAR, a former French colony. But since Russian mercenaries—invited by the Central African government to help fight rebels seeking to seize power—became very active in the impoverished African nation about five years ago, Russian firms linked to Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin have made the mining business in the country all but theirs, chasing away both local and foreign miners that were active there before their arrival.
China's recent attempt to make inroads into the lucrative sector may have been viewed as a threat to Russia's mining business in the country, according to those who've worked closely with the Wagner Group.
"The Russians don’t want anyone else to gain control of any mining site [in CAR] except you are Russian," said Ali, the ex-member of Wagner's local wing, known as the 'Black Russians.' "It is worse if you are a foreigner. They'll make sure you're dead so you don't find a way of coming back in future."
Reports of Russian paramilitaries targeting foreign miners in CAR aren’t new. Last June, a dispatch by The Guardian revealed that dozens of migrant miners were slaughtered, with some buried in mass graves, in at least three attacks by Wagner mercenaries last year. That was followed by a Middle East Eye report in July that some 100 gold miners from Sudan, Chad, and Niger were killed during a massacre by Wagner troops in CAR's eastern Andaha region in what was reportedly a desperate Russian attempt to gain control over the flow of gold and diamonds that could help Moscow manage the blow of sanctions brought on by Putin's unprovoked war in Ukraine.
In Chimbolo, two locals who live near the gold mine run by the Gold Coast Group, a Chinese company, told The Daily Beast that they had seen vehicles carrying "white soldiers" patrolling the area days before the attacks took place, including on the day the mine was opened last week.
"I’ve seen them [patrolling the area] very early in the morning and late at night," Elog Yambere, a local bricklayer, told The Daily Beast. "They didn’t always use the same vehicle whenever they showed up."
A local CAR defense official told The Daily Beast that China wants to carry out its own investigation, separate from that of CAR authorities.
CAR authorities are hoping to wrap up their own investigation before the end of the month, according to the defense official, who said "everyone," including the Wagner Group, is a suspect in the attack. But not everyone may get access to the government’s findings.
"We"ll submit our findings to the president alone," said the official who spoke to The Daily Beast privately. "Only the president can decide on what to do with it thereafter."
The Wagner Group has not publicly commented on the Chimbolo attack. The Daily Beast reached out to Prigozhin for comments, but emails sent to Concord Management, a company majority-owned by the Wagner financier, went unanswered.
At the moment, the CAR government is taking desperate measures to avoid a political fallout with Beijing. President Faustin Archange Touadera, who is yet to personally speak publicly on the incident, reportedly plans to travel to China to reassure investors of their safety in the country.
"If Touadera doesn"t handle this very well, we could be witnessing a fallout between CAR and China on one hand, and tensions between China and Russia on the other hand, especially if China is convinced Wagner carried out the killings," Wilfried M’Vondo, a member of the ruling United Hearts Movement party, told The Daily Beast. "At the moment, many people are pointing fingers at Wagner and that could lead to a disaster."
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