Russia, West clash over Russian military presence in the CAR

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council extended the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic at a meeting Friday that saw Russia and the West clash over Russia’s military presence in the conflict-wracked nation.

The vote on the French-drafted resolution was 13-0, with Russia and China abstaining. It maintains a ceiling of 14,400 military personnel and 3,020 international police in the U.N. mission known as MINUSCA until Nov. 15, 2022.

The mineral-rich but impoverished Central African Republic has faced deadly intercommunal fighting since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power and forced then-President Francois Bozize from office. Mostly Christian anti-Balaka militias later fought back, also targeting civilians in the streets. Untold thousands were killed, and most of the capital’s Muslims fled in fear.

A peace deal between the government and 14 rebel groups was signed in February 2019, but violence erupted after the constitutional court rejected Bozize’s candidacy to run for president last December. Touadera won a second term with 53% of the vote, but he continues to face opposition from a rebel coalition linked to Bozize.

The Security Council welcomed Touadera’s announcement of a cease-fire on Oct. 15 and urged all parties to the conflict to respect it. Council members encouraged the president and his government to pursue lasting peace and stability through “a comprehensive and reinvigorated political and peace process” including a national dialogue and implementation of the cease-fire agreement.

But Touadera’s strong defense of his decision to ask Russian instructors and Rwandan forces to help counter rebels threatening the government at a Security Council meeting last month, sparked strong Western opposition — and that opposition and clash with Russia was repeated on Friday.

U.S. deputy ambassador Richard Mills strongly backed MINUSCA’s extension and its work, including in protecting civilians and supporting the government’s Special Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights abuses and violations.

But he expressed disappointment that the resolution was “silent” about “individuals supported by the Russian Federation and invited into the country by CAR’s government (who) stand accused of committing egregious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including those involving sexual violence, summary executions, torture, and armed robbery.”

He pointed to numerous reports by the U.N., investigative journalists and the CAR government itself that concluded “that Russian-supported actors committed crimes during combat operations.”

Mills said the use of the phrase “all parties to the conflict” in the resolution, in the U.S. view, “includes these Russian contractors.”

France’s U.N. Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere told reporters after the council vote that the resolution will enable MINUSCA to support the cease-fire and “places greater importance on humanitarian access and respect for human rights, as violations have increased alarmingly since the crisis last winter, including by mercenaries.”

He reiterated that the presence of the Wagner Group, a private Russian military company that reportedly has close ties to the Kremlin, is “deeply destabilizing.” Its presence “is a factor of war, not a factor of peace,” he said, and evidence is mounting of abuses committed by Wagner including extrajudicial arrests and executions, sexual and gender-based violence, threats against human rights defenders and obstruction of humanitarian access.

Touadera never mentioned mercenaries or Wagner when he addressed the Security Council last month and neither did Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Anna Evstigneeva — and she didn’t mention mercenaries or Wagner either on Friday.

She said Russia abstained because the resolution didn’t include points sought by the CAR government . But she welcomed MINUSCA’s renewal and Touadera’s cease-fire announcement and his desire to push forward with peace and reconciliation.

Evstigneeva rejected the “egregious accusations” of some council members against “Russian specialists” working in CAR, saying they are successfully increasing the training of the country’s soldiers at the invitation of the government.

“The situation in the country has to a broad extent stabilized,” she said, adding that CAR authorities should investigate any violations.

Evstigneeva also sharply criticized U.N. peacekeepers who have been accused of sexual abuse, including against children, and trafficking in the CAR’s resources, most recently allegedly smuggling diamonds to Europe.

Portuguese police searched military installations and homes across the country on Monday following a tip that Portuguese troops serving with MINUSCA smuggled diamonds, drugs and gold into Europe on military cargo planes.

Mills, the American envoy, said the U.S. was disappointed that the resolution made no mention of a Nov. 1 incident in which 10 recently arrived unarmed U.N. peacekeepers from Egypt were injured when the presidential guard reportedly opened fire. A woman was struck and killed by a U.N. vehicle fleeing the scene.

“We urge the CAR authorities to carry out a transparent and credible investigation, to hold those responsible accountable, and to counter disinformation regarding this incident,” Mill said. “We emphasize that this incident highlights the urgent need to build trust, and to improve operational and tactical coordination. Disinformation must stop”.

Russia’s Evstigneeva said there are many questions regarding the Egyptian troops and called for an investigation of “mistakes” she claimed “MINUSCA leadership allowed in transferring people.”

“We note that the constant negative background surrounding MINUSCA is hampering the Security Council and undermines the trust in the U.N. itself,” she said. “Although the adoption of this resolution is a token of trust in the mission, unfortunately to date we can’t call its work competent, and we are going to carefully monitor the situation.”

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