As much of the world denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Thursday, the Central African Republic's capital, Bangui, hosted a tribute to Russian paramilitaries who helped beat back rebels a year ago.
In Bangui’s city center, a human-sized statue erected last year depicts Central African and Russian security forces protecting a woman and her child.
As Western countries tried in vain Wednesday to prevent Russian military aggression against Ukraine, about 100 Central Africans gathered at the monument holding Russian flags.
The group was paying tribute to Russian mercenaries who helped defend the capital, Bangui, last year against rebels.
Blaise-Didacien Kossimatchi organized the ceremony. He heads the "National Galaxy" platform, a Central African group close to the government that often holds protests against France and the United Nations.
He says they say no to everything that is a smear campaign against our army and our Russians, especially by the international press who qualify the Russians as mercenaries.. Kossimatchi adds, "no, the Russians are not here to make exactions - the Russians did nothing!”
By exactions, Kossimatchi means crimes such as rapes and killings. U.N. experts accuse Russian mercenaries of abusing civilians in the CAR. and several other countries.
Several of those celebrating the anniversary wore T-shirts that read “I am Wagner,” a reference to the Wagner Group, the shadowy Russian network that supplied the mercenaries.
Analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is behind the Wagner Group.
Wagner’s fighters provide security for CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and have been spotted from Syria to Libya and from Mozambique to Mali.
Yefi Kezza, a member of the ruling United Hearts Movement party, says they’re changing history. You see what is happening in Mali, says Kezza. This is a strong message that I’m sending to the French Embassy today, he says. It is time to cooperate with President Touadera and to try and liberate the country together, says Kezza. We’re grateful to the Russians. We are here today, he says, and we have invited the Russians to join us to thank them along with our national army.
No Russians attended the celebration in Bangui, but one Central African army commander was in the crowd.
One man held a sign that read, “Russia will Save the Donbas from War,” referring to the area in southeast Ukraine that Russia declared independent this week before launching its invasion.
A CAR government spokesman declined to comment on the celebration.