Russians detained in Chad desert say they are tourists

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N'DJAMENA, June 23 (Reuters) - A group of Russians detained by the police in a part of northern Chad where the army has been battling a rebel invasion from Libya said on Wednesday that they were tourists who had come to sightsee in the Sahara Desert.

The roughly 10 Russians were picked up last week by the police near the town of Faya Largeau because they were in a military operational zone, according to national police spokesperson Amane Issac Azina.

Azina said they had not broken any laws and had not been arrested, but rather evacuated to the capital N'Djamena for their own safety.

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"We decided this time to visit the Republic of Chad because it is very interesting," one of the Russians, Alexey Kamerzanov, told Reuters at an N'Djamena hotel.

"Usually world travellers do not visit the Republic of Chad because it's not the normal route in Africa, but I checked and saw Chad is very rich in natural sites," he said.

Among the sites on their itinerary, Kamerzanov said, was the Ennedi Plateau. The plateau is part of the Ennedi Massif, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its dramatic rock formations and rock art that dates back 7,000 years.

The area where the Russians were picked up is near where Chad's army battled rebels in April and May, a conflict that led to President Idriss Deby's death during a visit to the frontlines. The military claimed victory over the rebels in May.

Russia's presence in Africa has been the subject of considerable speculation in recent months.

Russia deployed security contractors to neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) in 2018, part of what analysts say is a strategy to rival Western militaries deployed on the continent.

Three Russians on that military mission were killed during an incident in May in which troops from CAR and Chad clashed at a border post. read more

In Libya, Russian mercenaries support eastern commander Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army, a U.N. panel of experts report has said.

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Reporting by Mahamat Ramadane; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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