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Airstrike Targets Central African Republic Base and Russian Wagner Forces Amidst Tensions with Neighbouring Chad
On the weekend of November 26th, a significant event took place in the Central African Republic (CAR), as various outlets reported an airstrike targeting a base housing both government troops and contractors from the Russian “Private Military Company” Wagner.
The attack took place at the Cotenaf Base in the Bossangoa region in the northern part of the country. However, Bangui’s language in assigning blame for the airstrike to a border nation has raised some eyebrows about who launched this strike.
There is one piece of evidence that may shed some light on who launched the attack. It has been reported that after the strike, witnesses saw the attacking aircraft fly away toward the north. If these accounts are accurate, it may indicate that Chad was responsible.
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This was not an isolated event, as an earlier incident took place on June 2nd, 2021 along the border between the two former French colonies. Reports about said event indicate that a combined force of CAR troops and Russian soldiers were pursuing a militia group near a Chadian military border post. Six Chadian and three Russian soldiers were killed in the incident. Both parties agreed to conduct an international investigation into the incident.
There was increased activity along the border between the countries as well during the month of December 2021. Militia groups such as the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) were actively recruiting fighters and launching small-scale attacks on villages in the northern part of the Central African Republic. The CPC has denied that it was their forces that were being pursued that led to the incident in early June 2021.
The easy movement of militia groups from Sudan, Libya, and the Central African Republic through the porous borders of Chad was identified as a risk factor in a brief by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in April 2022, which analyzed the transition Chad was undergoing after the death of former President Idriss Déby.
The latest phase of tensions between the two countries goes back at least a decade. One factor that has increased tensions is the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. Another concern is the actions committed by proxies, the issue relates to the poor relations between Russia and France. After the ouster of former President Francois Bozize by the alliance of armed rebel groups, Séléka, in 2013, the Central African Republic collapsed into a dark period of violence. It was during this time when Chadian President Déby had a significant influence on regional politics. He even invited then-CAR President Michel Djotodia to a summit in 2014 and pressured him to resign over his administration’s inability to halt the sectarian violence during the event.
There was also a sizable contingent of Chadian Troops that participated in Operation Sangaris from 2013 to 2016. Operation Sangaris was the French-led intervention into the Central African Republic after instability caused the ouster of former President Bozize resulting in a conflict in which thousands of citizens were killed along ethnic lines.
The Russian paramilitary presence in the Central African Republic has also complicated the security situation in the region. Their operations in support of the current CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera have prompted France to move towards a withdrawal from the country before the end of 2022. What is notable is that the French exit in this instance may have inspired Russia to reach out to Mali and encourage them to demand a French withdrawal. Mali did in fact request a withdrawal of French troops earlier this year. There is also increased scrutiny over the Russian role in the coup that occurred in Burkina Faso in October of this year as well. On December 2nd, the US State Department designated Wagner as an Entity of Particular Concern (EPC) for its activities in the Central African Republic that are considered to be Religious Freedom Violations.
A reasonable question to ask is whether Chad possessed the capability to plan and launch this airstrike, and the answer to that almost certainly seems to be “yes”. The country does have a small air force of Six Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft and three Mig-29s in operation.
It appears that a new row between Chad and the CAR is developing, and if Chad is responsible for the airstrike, it does not bode well for future diplomacy. The issues underlying the dispute are by no means new but have been left neglected for a decade. Furthermore, there appears to be no urgency by either party to address these issues. There is likely to be another incident or series of incidents in 2023 before either side is serious about mending relations and coming to the table on their shared future.