“Exiled” Russian mercenary boss Prigozhin hails Niger coup, offers services
PHOTO CAPTION: A photo published by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) purporting to show Wagner Group mercenaries at an unidentified location.
By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Wagner mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who remains active despite leading a failed mutiny against the Russian army's top brass last month, has hailed Niger's military coup as good news and offered his fighters' services to bring order.
A voice message on Telegram app channels associated with Wagner which they said was Prigozhin did not claim involvement in the coup, but described it as a moment of long overdue liberation from Western colonisers and made what looked like a pitch for his fighters to help keep order.
"What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonisers. With colonisers who are trying to foist their rules of life on them and their conditions and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago," said the message, posted on Thursday evening.
The speaker had the same distinctive intonation and turn of phrase in Russian as the Wagner boss although Reuters was not able to confirm with certainty that it was him.
"Today this is effectively gaining their independence. The rest will without doubt depend on the citizens of Niger and how effective governance will be, but the main thing is this: they have got rid of the colonisers," the message said.
It was unclear who was in charge of Niger after soldiers on Wednesday evening declared a military coup and held President Mohamed Bazoum in the presidential palace.
The country, one of the poorest in the world but which also holds some of its biggest uranium deposits, declared full independence from former colonial ruler France in 1960.
The voice message was the latest sign that Prigozhin and his men remain active in Africa, where they still have security contracts in some countries like Central African Republic (CAR), and are keen to expand.
Prigozhin, 62, appears to continue to enjoy freedom of movement despite what the Kremlin said last month was a post-mutiny deal that would see him relocate to neighbouring Belarus where some of his men have already started training the army.
He was heard in a video released earlier this month telling his men in Belarus that they should gather their strength for a "new journey to Africa."
There have been various sightings of Prigozhin in Russia since the post-mutiny deal was clinched and the Kremlin said he had even attended a meeting with Putin, who had earlier called the abortive mutiny "a stab in the back".
The voice message's release coincided with the publication on Telegram of at least two photographs purporting to show Prigozhin meeting African attendees of a showcase two-day Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg which concludes on Friday.
Reuters verified the location shown in one of the photographs as the Trezzini Palace hotel in St Petersburg, Prigozhin's home town. The lanyard worn by the official from Central African Republic (CAR) he is shown meeting in the same photograph matches those given to the summit's delegates.
Smiling and wearing blue jeans and a white polo shirt, Prigozhin looks relaxed in the photos as he poses to shake the hands of the delegates.
Prigozhin, in his voice message, boasted of Wagner's alleged efficiency in helping African nations stabilise and develop in what sounded like a sales pitch.
"...Thousands of Wagner fighters are capable of bringing order and of destroying terrorists and of not allowing them to harm the local populations of these states," he said.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said on Thursday that constitutional order in Niger should be restored.
Analysts said the Prigozhin appearances indicated that his private military company (PMC) would continue to play a role in furthering the Kremlin's foreign policy agenda in Africa.
"Yes, it's wild that Prigozhin is back in Russia, and apparently has been several times. But it's also in line with both Wagner's and Russia's goals to project normalcy and business as usual," Catrina Doxsee, an expert at the U.S. CSIS think tank, said on messaging platform X.
"Moscow will likely use the Summit to reassure African partners of their commitment and continuity of PMC services in the wake of the uncertainty from the past month," she said.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Additional reporting by Milan Pavicic; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)