CAIRO (AP) - The United States has stepped up pressure on Middle East allies to expel the Wagner Group, a military contractor with close ties to Russia's president, from chaos-stricken Libya and Sudan where it expanded in recent years, regional officials told The Associated Press.
The U.S. effort described by officials comes as the Biden administration is making a broad push against the mercenaries. The U.S. has slapped new sanctions on the Wagner Group in recent months over its expanding role in Russia's war in Ukraine.
The group is owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Pentagon has described it as a surrogate for the Russian Defense Ministry. The Kremlin denies any connection.
The Biden administration has been working for months with regional powers Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to pressure military leaders in Sudan and Libya to end their ties with the group, according to more than a dozen Libyan, Sudanese and Egyptian officials. They asked for anonymity to speak freely and because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.
"Wagner obsesses them (American officials)," said an Egyptian senior government official with direct knowledge of the talks. "It is at the top of every meeting."
The group doesn't announce its operations, but its presence is known from reports on the ground and other evidence. In Sudan, it was originally associated with former strongman Omar al-Bashir and now works with the military leaders who replaced him. In Libya, it's associated with east Libya-based military commander Khalifa Hifter.
Wagner has deployed thousands of operatives in African and Middle Eastern countries including Mali, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Syria. Its aim in Africa, analysts say, is to support Russia's interests amid rising global interest in the resource-rich continent. Rights experts working with the U.S. on Jan. 31 accused the group of committing possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mali, where it is fighting alongside government forces.
"Wagner tends to target countries with natural resources that can be used for Moscow's objectives - gold mines in Sudan, for example, where the resulting gold can be sold in ways that circumvent Western sanctions," said Catrina Doxsee, an expert on Wagner at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Prigozhin did not respond to a request for comment sent to the press department of the Concord Group, of which he is an owner.
The group's role in Libya and Sudan was central to recent talks between CIA director William Burns and officials in Egypt and Libya in January. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also discussed the group with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in a late-January trip to Cairo, Egyptian officials said. Weeks after the visits, Burns acknowledged in a Thursday speech at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., that after recent travel to Africa he was concerned about the Wagner's growing influence in the continent.
"That is a deeply unhealthy development and we're working very hard to counter it," Burns said.
Burns and Blinken called on el-Sissi's government to help convince Sudan's ruling generals and Libya's Hifter to end their dealings with the Wagner, an Egyptian official briefed on the talks said.
The group and its founder have been under U.S. sanctions since 2017, and the Biden administration in December announced new export restrictions to restrict its access to technology and supplies, designating it as a "significant transnational criminal organization."
Leaders in Sudan have received repeated U.S. messages about Wagner's growing influence in recent months, via Egypt and Gulf states, said a senior Sudanese official.
Abbas Kamel, the director of Egypt's Intelligence Directorate Agency, conveyed Western concerns in talks in Khartoum last month with the head of Sudan's ruling sovereign council, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the official said. Kamel urged Burhan to find a way to address Wagner's "use of Sudan as a base" for operations in neighboring countries such as the Central African Republic, the official said.
Wagner started operating in Sudan in 2017, providing military training to intelligence and special forces, and to the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces, according to Sudanese officials and documents shared with The Associated Press.
The RSF, which grew out of the feared Janjaweed militias, is led by powerful general Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who has close ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Dagalo has been sending troops to fight alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen's long-running civil war.
Wagner mercenaries are not operating in a combat role in Sudan, officials said. The group, which has dozens of operatives in the country, provides military and intelligence training, as well as surveillance and protection of sites and top officials.
Sudanese military leaders appear to have given Wagner control of gold mines in return. The documents show that the group has received mining rights through front companies with ties to Sudan's powerful military and the RSF. Its activities are centered in gold-rich areas controlled by the RSF in Darfur, Blue Nile and other provinces, according to officials.
Two companies have been sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury for acting as fronts for Wagner's mining activities - Meroe Gold, a Sudanese gold mining firm, and its owner, the Russian-based M Invest firm. Prigozhin owns or controls both, according to the Treasury. Despite sanctions, Meroe Gold is still operating across Sudan.
The Russian mercenaries helped the paramilitary force consolidate its influence not only in the country's far-flung regions, but also in the capital of Khartoum, where it helps run pro-RSF social media pages.
The main camp of Wagner mercenaries is in the contested village of Am Dafok on the borders between the Central African Republic and Sudan, according to the Darfur Bar Association, a legal group that focuses on human rights.
"Nobody can approach their areas," said Gibreel Hassabu, a lawyer and member of the association.
In Libya, Burns held talks in Tripoli with Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, head of one of Libya's two rival governments.
The CIA director also met with Hifter in eastern Libya, according to officials with Hifter's forces. One official briefed on the meeting in al-Rajma military complex, the seat of Hifter's command just outside Benghazi, said Wagner was the main issue discussed.
U.N. experts said Wagner mercenaries were deployed Libya since 2018, helping Hifter's forces in their fight against Islamist militants in eastern Libya. The group was also involved in his failed offensive on Tripoli in April 2019.
The U.S. Africa Command, AFRICOM, estimated that some 2,000 Wagner mercenaries were in Libya between July-September 2020, before a cease-fire. The mercenaries were equipped with armored vehicles, air defense systems, fighter aircraft, and other equipment, which were supplied by Russia, according to the AFRICOM assessment. The report also said the Wagner group appeared to be receiving money from the UAE, a main foreign backer of Hifter.
Since the 2020 cease-fire, Wagner's activities have centered around oil facilities in central Libya, and they have continued providing military training to Hifter forces, Libyan officials said. It is not clear how many Wagner mercenaries are still in Libya.
American officials have demanded that mercenaries be pulled out of oil facilities, another Libyan official said.
Hifter did not offer any commitments, but asked for assurances that Turkey and the Libyan militias it backed in western Libya will not initiate an attack on his forces in the coastal city of Sirte and other areas in central Libya.
Egypt, which has close ties with Hifter, has demanded that Wagner not be stationed close to its borders.
There is no evidence yet that the Biden administration's pressure has yielded results in either Sudan or Libya, observers said.
Doxsee, the expert, said the U.S. and allies should resist promoting narratives that "Russia is bad and what we have to offer is good" and instead focus on offering better alternatives to Wagner.
"Ultimately, at the end of the day, Wagner is a business. If you can cut out the profit and you can reduce the business case for using Wagner, that's what is going to make it a less appealing case," she said.
AP writer Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report from Washington D.C.