Founder of Russian private militia accuses France in Central African Republic attack

Dec 16 (Reuters) - The head of a Russian private militia accused France of attempting to assassinate the head of a Russian representative office in the Central African Republic, who was seriously injured on Friday after opening a mail bomb.

Dmitry Syty, head of the "Russian House", was taken to a hospital in the capital Bangui and by late afternoon his condition was serious, but stable, the Russian Embassy said, according to the Russian RIA Novosti news agency.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the once-secretive Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, which has supported Central African Republic's (CAR) army since 2018 but gained wider attention with its role in Russia's war in Ukraine, blamed France for the attack.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said the claims were false.

"It's even a good example of Russian propaganda and the fanciful imagination that sometimes characterises this propaganda", she told journalists on a trip to Morocco.

France is the former colonial ruler in CAR, a gold- and diamond-rich country of 4.7 million people whose government is fighting several rebel insurgencies. Since 2018 the government has been assisted by hundreds of Russian operatives, including many from Wagner.

"Before losing consciousness, Dmitry Syty managed to say: 'I saw a note: This is for you from all the French, the Russians will get out of Africa'," Prigozhin, who styles himself as a strong supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on Telegram.

He did not say how he knew what Syty had said.

He said he had asked Russian Foreign Ministry to open the procedure for declaring France a state sponsor of terrorism.

The ministry said the act aimed to "harm the successful development of friendly relations" between Russia and CAR. RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed senior CAR source as saying the country would cooperate with Russia in the investigation.

French President Emmanuel Macron has accused Russia of feeding anti-French propaganda in Africa to serve "predatory" ambitions in Africa, where France has suffered military setbacks and a wider loss of influence over recent years.

Prigozhin called Syty "a patriot of Russia and the Central African Republic".

U.S. SANCTIONS

It was not clear how the men were linked. Syty - also transliterated from Cyrillic as Sytyi or Sytii - was placed under financial sanctions by the U.S. Treasury in September 2020 as one of several Russian nationals said to be active in CAR with links to Prigozhin.

The Wagner founder is also under U.S. sanctions, in part for attempts to interfere in U.S. elections, which he has admitted to.

"Russian House" is not only a cultural centre but also hosts Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian federal agency that says on its social media channels that it deals with "the affairs of the Commonwealth of Independent States, compatriots living abroad, and international humanitarian cooperation".

The European Union has imposed sanctions on Wagner, accusing it of carrying out clandestine operations on the Russian government's behalf.

Last year, a United Nations report said Russian military instructors and local troops in the Central African Republic had targeted civilians with excessive force, indiscriminate killings, occupation of schools and large-scale looting.

Russia has said Wagner neither represents the state nor is paid by it, and has denied that Russian instructors took part in killings or robberies.

Prigozhin said Syty had received a package on Nov. 11 containing a photograph of his son, who lives in France, as well as a note saying Syty would receive his son's head next if "the Russians do not get out of the African continent and open the doors for the French". He said Syty had feared his son's head would be in the new parcel.

The Russian Embassy said it had tightened its own security measures following the attack, TASS reported.

Wagner Group has deployed in several countries in the region, including CAR and in Mali.

Relations between Russia and Western nations are at rock-bottom over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in February.

Reporting by Reuters Writing by Kevin Liffey Editing by Andrew Osborn, Tomasz Janowski and Frances Kerry

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