Russia's Wagner mercenary group is ready to increase its presence in Africa, its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin told an African news outlet in an audio interview published online earlier this week.
"We aren't reducing (our presence), moreover we're ready to increase our various contingents," Prigozhin told Cameroon-based Afrique Media. The telephone interview was posted on YouTube but had been viewed only 1,400 times as of late Friday.
Reuters could not immediately verify the veracity of the audio, but a voice that appeared to be Prigozhin's could be heard under a French translation.
In the interview, he said Wagner was fulfilling all its obligations on the continent, and was ready to further develop relations with African countries.
Fighting on Russia's side, Wagner has taken part in some of the bloodiest battles of the Ukraine war. But its future role was called into question when Prigozhin staged a brief mutiny last month and the Kremlin said he would leave Russia for Belarus, where some of his fighters have started training Belarusian forces.
However, he was photographed in St Petersburg this week during a Russia-Africa summit, including alongside a journalist from Afrique Media.
Wagner's current whereabouts in Africa
Prigozhin confirmed to Afrique Media that a new rotation of Wagner forces had recently arrived in the Central African Republic ahead of a constitutional referendum on July 30 that could see President Faustin-Archange Touadera extend his term.
"New forces have arrived, we control the territory of the republic," he said, without stating the size of the force.
Russian mercenaries, including many from Wagner, intervened in 2018 on the side of the CAR government to quell a civil war that has raged since 2012.
Wagner's role in CAR, Mali and elsewhere in Africa is a source of concern for Western governments, including France and the United States. Washington has accused the group of committing widespread atrocities and imposed sanctions on it as a criminal organization.
Prigozhin denies that, saying in the interview that all Wagner's activity was lawful and of benefit to the countries where it operates and to their relations with Russia.