PARIS — As it weighs its options in Sudan, French diplomacy is increasingly concerned about Russian role in the fighting through the mercenary group Wagner, as it tries to galvanize efforts behind a ceasefire.
France is concerned that as in Mali, Russia could exploit the destabilization of Sudan to expand its influence in the country. The Russian Wagner Group has been present in the country since 2017, when it started offering training there, mostly to officers of Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo known as Hemedti who controls the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Wagner has also offered intelligence support to the Sudanese army. More recently, the group has taken over the management of some of the gold mines in Sudan, the New York Times reported last year.
Reports since 2018 have revealed several visits to Khartoum by Wagner’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. Last November, Le Monde and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an investigative report, showing that Wagner has received access to Sudan’s natural resources, in exchange for policing equipment and training for the Sudanese army.
CNN reported on Thursday that Wagner has been supplying the RSF with missiles to aid their fight against the country's army.
In Mali, Russia and Wagner threw their weight behind the military in 2021 as it orchestrated a coup and ousted France. An estimated 4,500 French troops stationed in the north of Mali to battle jihadist groups were forced to leave. Paris believes that Moscow was not only behind the decision by Mali’s Junta to drive France out, but also behind a long disinformation campaign to ignite anti-French sentiments within the local Mali population.
Last January, Burkina Faso announced it was ending its military cooperation with France. Paris believes that in this case as well, while operating more discretely, Moscow was behind a similar anti-French campaign in an African country.
Cease-fire and evacuations
Now Paris is pushing for a cease-fire in Sudan. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna participated in a virtual meeting Thursday organized by the African Union and the United Nations in a bid to push the parties in Sudan to agree to a cease-fire.
A statement issued by the French Foreign Ministry after the meeting said, “France lends its full support to the joint call by all the participants of the meeting for a humanitarian, immediate and unconditional cease-fire in Sudan on the occasion of the Eid holiday.“
Spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry Anne-Claire Legendre said earlier Thursday that for the moment, France is not planning to evacuate its citizens from Sudan. According to Legendre, there are several hundred French nationals in the country. The French Embassy in Khartoum is in direct and constant contact with all French nationals registered at the embassy.
French Ambassador to Sudan Raja Rabia published a message to French citizens in the country Friday, praising their resilience and pleading with them to follow instructions sent by the embassy. “For your own emotional balance in these moments of stress, avoid paying any attention to rumors and info circulating on social networks. Focus only on the essential — your security,” she wrote.
With too many risks involved, Paris has been taking its time evacuating its citizens. Sudan's airspace has been closed since the beginning of the fighting last Saturday, as was Khartoum's international airport, located in center of capital and in the fighting zone.
Der Spiegel reported on Wednesday that a mission by the German military to evacuate around 150 citizens from Sudan was halted due to continuous fighting in the Sudanese capital. Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said Thursday that the evacuation of citizens and diplomatic staff from Sudan is currently "impossible" due to security risks in Khartoum.
Still, after the US evacuation of their diplomatic staff Saturday night, France is appears to be on the move. Ouest France newspaper had reported on Thursday that two Airbus A400M one Hercules C130 airplanes left France Wednesday night en route to Djibouti. The newspaper claimed that France has also deployed other measures to transfer troops to the region in view of a possible evacuation operation. Recent reports by Reuters said that Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and other countries are all weighing plans to evacuate their diplomatic staffs from Sudan.
A statement issued by the Sudanese army on Saturday said it agreed to coordinate evacuation efforts for both citizens and diplomats from the US, UK, China and France. It also said that Saudi diplomats have already been evacuated. RSF said they were ready to partially open Khartoum airport for the evacuation of foreign citizens.
The French foreign ministry issued Sunday morning a statement saying that together with the French defense ministry, they are ''coordinating a rapid evacuation operation for our diplomatic staff and of our nationals in Sudan, in conjunction with all the stakeholders as well as our European and allied partners. This operation includes nationals of these States as well as European diplomatic staff.''
Paris has been mobilized since the beginning of the fighting to de-escalate tensions in Sudan. The crisis in Sudan is internal at the moment, but could easily become regional, affecting Egypt, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Of these seven neighboring countries, France is strongly allied with Egypt and with Chad, two states with an especially long border with Sudan.
On Tuesday, Colonna spoke on the phone with her Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry about the situation in Sudan.
As for Chad, the UN refugee agency said Thursday that since the beginning of the conflict, between 10,000 and 20,000 people have fled Sudan's western Darfur region seeking refuge in Chad. With its forces driven out of Mali and reduced in Burkina Faso, France has been investing in cooperating with Chad and with Niger on issues of regional security. Maintaining Chad's stability is a priority for Paris.