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Are white mercenaries fighting in the DRC conflict?

Simone Schlindwein
January 17, 2023

Western diplomats are deeply worried about the sudden appearance of Eastern European mercenaries in the volatile eastern Congo. Despite denials by Kinshasa, rumors abound that it hired the notorious Russian Wagner Group.

Congolese soldiers at Goma airport
Congolese soldiers at Goma airport are being supported by Eastern European mercenaries Image: Alain Uaykani/Xinhua/IMAGO

Located on an unpaved side street near the international airport of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC),the Hotel Mbiza usually caters to businesspeople or government delegations from the capital, Kinshasa. But since around Christmas of 2022, white military personnel from Eastern Europe have fully booked the hotel.

"There are dozens, maybe even a hundred white men in uniform," a local journalist said. He asked for anonymity for security reasons. "They wear a variety of uniforms with no national flags, and pistols on belts," he said.

The journalist added that soldiers of the Congolese presidential guard closely guarded the hotel entrance. They told him foreigners had booked all the rooms for an extended period. "It is now the headquarters of the whites," explained a soldier at the entrance, who refused to say more.

Diplomatic circles have been speculating for weeks on the meaning of the presence of these armed Eastern European men in Goma amid a new round of fighting in eastern DRC.The war erupted last spring after Tutsi rebels of the M23 (March 23 Movement) seized a vast swath of land along the border with neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.

Congo's army has been incurring heavy losses in the fighting. The presence of white armed men at the Mbiza Hotel sparked rumors that the government had hired the notorious Russian mercenary Wagner Group to help fight the rebels.

Malians waving a banner thanking the Wagner Group
Wagner Group mercenaries operate fairly publicly in MaliImage: Florent Vergnes/AFP

Wagner's growing presence in Africa

The Wagner Group is seen as Russia's "shadow army." It is stationed at the front lines in the Ukraine war and is accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity there. In Africa, Wagner mercenaries have been hired to help fight Islamist insurgents in Mali and rebels in the Central African Republic.

Rwandan social media accounts say that the Wagner mercenaries are now in Congo. Rwanda, which the United Nations accuses of supporting M23 rebels in Congo, is interested in casting Kinshasa's government in a bad light by spreading rumors of possible ties to the Wagner Group.

Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi has consistently denied the presence of Wagner mercenaries on his country's territory. "I know it's fashionable now," he had said in a recent interview, adding: "No, we don't have to use mercenaries."

Women being trained to fight
Women are joining forces with the army to fight M23Image: Benjamin Kasembe/DW

However, in January, photos began circulating on Twitter showing the corpse of a white man in a camouflage uniform lying in the dirt. "This is what happens to the Russians of Wagner," someone commented underneath.

According to research by the German newspaper taz, the M23 leadership confirmed that the white man was killed in the village of Karenga on December 30. But the journalist who spoke to DW emphasized that most Congolese really can't tell if the men are Russian or from other Eastern European nations. Still, the Congolese in Goma refer to the mercenaries as "Russians," clearly linking them to the Wagner Group.

Congolese government denies hiring Wagner mercenaries

Congo's government recently explained why it does not need to hire Wagner's mercenaries. "If we get Sukhoi aircraft [Russian fighter planes], we need the technical personnel to maintain them. If we don't have that manpower, what do we do?" said Communications Minister Patrick Muyaya.

He said that the military should be trained with existing resources. He mentioned former members of the French Legion as an example.

In May, Defense Minister Kabanda watched a flight demonstration of Sukhoi jets at the Congolese Air Force airfield in Kinshasa. On the tarmac, there were Eastern European men in uniforms with the insignia of the private Bulgarian company "Agemira." Kabanda praised them for having repaired old combat helicopters in only 57 days.  

UN investigators confirmed that Agemira had stationed some 40 engineers and flight technicians at the airport in Goma to carry out repairs. Among them were Bulgarians, Georgians and Belarusians, who are familiar with Russian aircraft. In addition, Congo's air force employs Georgian pilots to fly fighter jets.

Romanian mercenaries from Potra's company now guard the Goma airport while Agemira technicians oversee aircraft maintenance. Congo's army wants to ensure that the strategically important tarmac, just a few dozen kilometers from the front line, will not fall into rebel hands, as it did during the last war in 2012. Back then, M23 fighters looted the army depots at the airport, including medium-range missiles from Russia.

Pressure on Rwanda grows over rebel violence in DRCongo

Spotlight on Romanian mercenary group

Another picture, posted online on January 2 by Fiston Mahamba, a journalist with the fact-checking portal Congo Check, provided more concrete clues, says taz's report. It shows a white, fairly mature-aged man with an AK-47 assault rifle standing between two soldiers on the road, presumably north of Goma. This is believed to be a photo of a seasoned mercenary from Romania named Horatiu Potra.

He was a member of the French Foreign Legion in the 1990s and was known to be very active in Africa in the following decades. He trained the bodyguards of then-President Ange-Felix Patasse in the Central African Republic and taught insurgents in Chad how to fight.

He also knows his way around Congo. In 2002, he contacted Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, who helped Patasse in the neighboring Central African Republic, according to the taz article. The publication asked several international Wagner experts and UN investigators, but no one could confirm ties between Potra and Wagner.

Potra, in turn, is the managing director of the Romanian mercenary group Asociatia RALF, based in Sibiu. Its website states that the company trains bodyguards for VIPs, protects "sensitive areas" such as mines, and trains special forces. The firm did not respond to email inquiries.

An employee of Congo's immigration authority stationed at the airport in Goma said that he stamped Romanian passports of the white military personnel on arrival.

Omage of hands, a weapon and ammunition
The Congolese army is in dire need of modern military equipmentImage: Benjamin Kasembe/DW

A need for Russian arms

Kinshasa has strengthened ties with Russia over the past year. As recently as August, Defense Minister Gilbert Kabanda was invited to a security conference in Moscow, where he praised Russia's support.

 Moscow, in turn, had promised to help to equip Congo's ailing army with new, modern military gear, especially tanks, helicopters and combat aircraft.

Until recently, the promise was not easy to fulfill because of the arms embargo that the UN Security Council imposed on Congo in 2003.

Under a new resolution adopted by the Security Council on December 20, countries are no longer required to inform the UN about arms sales or military support for the Congolese government. Two days later, the white mercenaries with Romanian passports started arriving in Goma.

Congo's army can use all the help it can get. Its air force consists mainly of old Russian planes. One of two much-needed transport helicopters crashed in action last year. The rest of the equipment, in constant use in the fight against M23, is in urgent need of maintenance. But Russia needs its weapons in the war against Ukraine. Supply by the world market has shrunk and has become very expensive.

This article was translated from German