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Wagner chief Prigozhin is dead, but Wagner-linked planes are still flying to Africa

In January 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin suddenly launched a public vendetta against Russia's Ministry of Defense. Over the months that followed, the verbal confrontation escalated, blowing up into an armed standoff and eventually concluding with the assassination of Prigozhin himself, disguised as an airplane crash in Russia itself this past August. For months, it remained unclear what its leader’s death would mean for the Wagner Group, a private military company with GRU connections in Moscow and private business interests in Africa. After an analysis of Wagner Group aircraft activity throughout the continent, The Insider can report that the private military company’s flights to key destinations including the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mali remain active. And in what is likely not a coincidence, after the outbreak of the war in Gaza, these same Wagner planes began to frequent Syria, confirming old suspicions of Russian support for Hezbollah militants.

Content
  • Wagner's shuttles operating as usual

  • Escalation after Gaza

  • The Chronology of Africa's Conquest

  • Ministry of Emergency Situations in the service of the PMC

  • APPENDIX: Private companies servicing Russian arms deliveries in Africa

RU

Wagner's shuttles operating as usual

The last time the late Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin visited Africa was Aug. 18, 2023, visiting the Central African Republic (CAR) five days before he was assassinated. For all his love of luxury, Prigozhin didn't take a business jet, but an Ilyushin Il-76 freighter with folding seats covered in gaudy upholstery. However, the plane was perfect for keeping a low profile, as it used two registration numbers at once, TL-KPA and TL-KMZ. It also disappeared from the radar conspicuously often.

This is not the only airplane that, for years, has been carrying Wagner personnel and cargo in Africa and the Middle East. The Wagner Group also operates “cargo shuttles”: more Il-76 and An-12 freighters, along with a few helicopters. The planes have been constantly moving between airfields in Syria, Libya, the CAR, and Mali since 2021, but tracking them is close to impossible, as they do not share their data with publicly available resources. However, The Insider found satellite and ground images placing the planes in Bangui and at Libyan military airfields. In addition, planes flying to and from Syria regularly enter Cypriot airspace, which is how The Insider was able to track these flights.

As it turned out, the aircraft with tail numbers TL-KMZ and TL-KMO made at least 84 flights between aerodromes in Syria and Libya in the period from late November 2022 to late October 2023. This remains the main route for the Wagner Group logistics in Africa and the Middle East. After Prigozhin's death, the flights continued, sometimes almost daily. The last registered flight was completed on Oct. 27, 2023, by a plane with tail number TL-KMO.

Wagner shuttle flights to Syria and Africa
Wagner shuttle flights to Syria and Africa
Sources: Flightradar24, RadarBox, ADS-B Exchange, social media, satellite images

One of these planes appears to have ceased its operations: in December 2023, a US kamikaze drone attacked the Al-Jufra airbase in Libya and, judging by satellite images, destroyed an Il-76 freighter. It is not yet possible to verify whether this was one of Wagner's CAR airplanes, but the mercenaries had often used the Al-Jufra airbase as a transit point between Central Africa and Syria. Agenzia Nova's source in the U.S. Department of State claims the American strike indeed blew up a Wagner plane.

Satellite image of Al-Jufra Air Base, Dec. 15, 2023
Satellite image of Al-Jufra Air Base, Dec. 15, 2023
Source: Eekad OSINT platform

Almost a year earlier, on Jan. 27, 2023, Prigozhin had lost another airplane to a drone strike: TL-KBR, which had flown the same route between Syria and Central Africa. A UN panel of Libya experts linked that aircraft to earlier arms shipments provided to the forces of Khalifa Haftar, the Russian-backed general leading the Libyan government’s military efforts in the country’s ongoing civil war. The Wagner aircraft also provided for the rotation of Russian mercenaries in violation of an embargo imposed on Muammar Gaddafi’s successors in Tripoli. An airstrike was also attempted on a newly arrived “shuttle,” but the plane soon departed for Bangui, CAR unscathed.

Satellite image of Al Khadim Air Base, Jan. 29, 2023
Satellite image of Al Khadim Air Base, Jan. 29, 2023
Source: Eekad OSINT platform

Formally, all of these aircraft belong to the armed forces of CAR (TL-Kxx tail numbers are normally reserved for the Air Force), but the flight costs were billed to Lapara Aviation, which had officially left the country back in 2021. UN diplomatic sources indicate that the delivery of these planes to CAR was arranged by Valery Zakharov, a security adviser to the country’s president and, not coincidentally, also the local Wagner Group chief.

UN experts spotted another Il-76 aircraft at Bangui airport and believe that it was also delivered in violation of the arms embargo. Until 2023, it belonged to the Russian carrier Abakan Air, flying to Sudan, South Sudan, and Togo, where it is suspected to have delivered Turkish-made drones. The aircraft changed its tail number twice in 2023, first to the Central African TL-LIZ and then to XT-EBO, indicating registration in Burkina Faso. In the first half of December 2023 alone, the plane made ten flights from Burkina Faso to Mali (Gao and Timbuktu).

Another plane that may have been carrying Wagner fighters in 2022-2023
Another plane that may have been carrying Wagner fighters in 2022-2023
Sources: Flightradar24, RadarBox, ADS-B Exchange, social media, satellite images

The presence of Wagner fighters in Burkina Faso has never been documented, but their presence in the West African country has been rumored since 2022. The government in the capital Ouagadougou, which came to power in a military coup, denied any accusation that it had collaborated with the Russian private military company in exchange for resource extraction contracts. However, according to the French language pan-African online magazine Jeune Afrique, direct military cooperation between Russia and Burkina Faso intensified in late 2023, shortly after Yevgeny Prigozhin's death. The so-called “African Corps,” a new entity within the Russian Ministry of Defense, has already deployed its first 100-strong team of military “consultants” to Burkina Faso.

Escalation after Gaza

Formally, after the summer mutiny, Prigozhin's Wagnerites were prohibited from using Russian Ministry of Defense aircraft and the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria. However, at least until September 11, 2023, the TL-KMO plane continued to fly to Syria via the Tiyas Military Airbase (also known as T-4) under an agreement with the Syrian Ministry of Defense, suggesting that cargo delivery from the Central African Republic and Libya via private aircraft associated with the Wagner PMC continued until at least the end of October 2023. An increase occurred after the start of military operations in the Gaza sector, and it cannot be ruled out that the aircraft were transporting equipment from Central Africa or Libya to Syria to aid Hezbollah militants. The Wall Street Journal, citing sources in U.S. intelligence, pointed to such a possibility. If Wagner PMC resources were indeed deployed to assist the Shiite military organization, then the Wagner flights to Syria in October 2023 are likely linked to this.

Cargo delivery from the Central African Republic and Libya via private aircraft associated with the Wagner PMC continued until at least the end of October 2023
Flights of Il-76 aircraft associated with the Wagner PMC
Flights of Il-76 aircraft associated with the Wagner PMC
Sources: Flightradar24, RadarBox, ADS-B Exchange

The Chronology of Africa's Conquest

In 2018, Russian Ministry of Defense aircraft began appearing in CAR, Libya, and Sudan, officially to provide logistical support for “Russian consultants” on the ground. Mali later became another major destination. These flights frequently arrived via Latakia, where Khmeimim Air Base is located, and they continued until at least the beginning of 2022.

In Libya, these aircraft violated the UN arms embargo by delivering weapons. Reuters reported Russian military support to Haftar in Libya as early as the beginning of 2017, linking it to a private company. Prigozhin was observed at negotiations between Haftar and Ministry of Defense officials in Moscow at the end of 2018. According to calculations by a group of UN experts, in 2020 alone Russian military aircraft – including those directly associated with the Ministry of Defense – conducted 505 flights from Syria to Libya. However, from January 2021 through March 2022, the number of Russian flights along this route decreased to 262.

Wagner fighters appeared in CAR in early 2018, coinciding with a successful Russian lobbying effort at the UN to at least partially lift an arms embargo on the African country. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not specify what kind of “civilian instructors” were sent to the Central African Republic, and Prigozhin denied both their connection to the PMC and the existence of the private military company itself, as both hiring a mercenary and serving as one is illegal under Russian law. Despite this fact, at close to the same time, Russian mercenaries appeared in Sudan – a fact discovered thanks to a leak from the Security Service of Ukraine and later verified by Radio Liberty and Bellingcat.

A flight route of Russian Air Force aircraft RA-85155 between Cairo and the Al-Khadim military base in Libya  January 2020,
A flight route of Russian Air Force aircraft RA-85155 between Cairo and the Al-Khadim military base in Libya January 2020,
author - @Gerjon_ viaFlightRadar24

Logistics of the Wagner PMC were organized with the help of Russian Ministry of Defense aircraft. The company M Invest, which is associated with Prigozhin, hired several aircraft, including those with tail numbers RA-85041, RA-85042, and RA-85155. — The planes came from Russia’s 223rd and 224th Flight Squadrons, which allow for commercial service, and it was an airplane from the 224th specifically that was used to deploy Wagner members to Mozambique in the fall of 2019. That mission was short-lived, however, as insurgents captured and beheaded several of the mercenaries.

After 2021, the bulk of logistical operations were carried out by aircraft that had been brought into CAR and registered there with the assistance of Prigozhin's employees in the country. And in 2023, the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, the U.S. equivalent of FEMA, greenlighted the use of their aircraft, apparently commercially chartered as well, to assist in the transportation of cargo and mercenaries.

Ministry of Emergency Situations in the service of the PMC

The subsidiary of the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations that operates commercial flights is known as FGBU Aviation and Rescue Company of EMERCOM of Russia. It is this company’s aircraft that have transported humanitarian aid in the past to a range of destinations: to Turkey after the devastating earthquake in 2023, to Libya after the flood in September 2023, to Lebanon after the explosion in Beirut in 2020, and also to the Gaza Strip.

Wagner PMC's logistics in Africa was also managed by the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations

In 2023, the company's aircraft were frequently observed visiting Syria – and not only for delivering humanitarian aid. From February to the end of November alone, The Insider counted 37 flights by the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations from Russian and African airports to Syria. Specifically, The Insider tracked cargo flights of Il-76 aircraft with tail numbers RA-76363, RA-76841, RA-76429, and RA-76845. These flights began after a powerful earthquake in Syria and Turkey in February 2023. But while the EMERCOM mission in Turkey officially ended on February 12, daily flights continued until the end of February, then resumed again in March, occurring almost daily until the beginning of May.

Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations aircraft in Syria and Africa
Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations aircraft in Syria and Africa
Sources: Flightradar24, RadarBox, ADS-B Exchange, social media, satellite imagery

On June 21-22, 2023, less than a week before Prigozhin's march on Moscow the aircraft registered as RA-76845 made a quick trip from Moscow to Bamako, Mali, stopping in Krasnodar, Russia and Latakia, Syria on the way to Africa. Not coincidentally, the largest Wagner PMC base is located 30 kilometers from Krasnodar Airport. Ukrainian hackers who accessed the pilot's email leaked documents showing that such flights to Bamako were officially “commercial,” but the customer who chartered them remains unknown.

Interestingly, a flight to Latakia along a similar route in March 2023 was labeled as a “government contract,” while the onward flight from Latakia to Bamako was labeled as commercial. It is likely Prigozhin arrived in Moscow on August 21, two days prior to his death, on an EMERCOM RA-76845 flight from Bamako to Moscow that traveled via Syria.

Notably, none of the EMERCOM aircraft or “Wagner shuttles” registered in the Central African Republic fell under any sanctions.

Flight of Russian Air Force aircraft RA-85155 from Astrakhan to Latakia on October 15, 2022. The aircraft is prohibited from entering Turkish airspace.
Flight of Russian Air Force aircraft RA-85155 from Astrakhan to Latakia on October 15, 2022. The aircraft is prohibited from entering Turkish airspace.
Source: FlightRadar24

APPENDIX: Private companies servicing Russian arms deliveries in Africa

Flights of military aircraft to countries under arms embargoes raise questions, and concealing them is difficult. Fortunately for those in need of such clandestine services, however, civilian airlines are often willing to take risks. For example, UN experts have raised suspicions regarding at least 11 private companies registered in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and the UAE that have potentially facilitated delivery of arms and mercenaries to support Haftar in Libya.

One such company is Sapsan Airline, registered in Kyrgyzstan. Its involvement in illegal deliveries to Libya has been suspected since at least 2021. However, its planes were not only flying to Libya. The Insider discovered that Sapsan Airline aircraft regularly flew between CAR, Mali, Uganda, and the UAE. They also appeared in Syria, Rwanda, and Libya.

Suspicions that one of the company's aircraft is used for Wagner PMC logistics increased after one of them crashed during a landing in Gao, Mali, in September 2023. Immediately before the accident, the aircraft appears to have changed ownership as its registration switched from EX-76007 to TZ-98T. The video of the plane crash immediately went viral on social media – including on Telegram channels and chats associated with the Wagner PMC. However, no one — from governmental authorities to journalists to official representatives of the PMC have yet provided an answer to the question: what kind of cargo was this unmarked Il-76 carrying when it crashed and burned on a runway in West Africa?

Aircraft wreckage at Gao airport, September 23, 2023
Aircraft wreckage at Gao airport, September 23, 2023
MAXAR, Le Monde

While sources in the French armed forces cited by Le Monde claim that Wagner PMC mercenaries were most likely on board the aircraft, neither the Malian authorities nor the Wagner PMC command reported the crash or indicated who or what might have gone up in flames along with the plane itself. Still, information which has appeared in chats used by mercenaries' relatives suggests that Wagner fighters were indeed on board the aircraft.

Other suspicious companies include the Russian firm Abakan Air, which has nevertheless never appeared on any lists of violators of arms embargoes. However, some of its flights suspiciously resemble those of companies found to have used to get around such restrictions, and the company’s practices meet many of the criteria outlined by UN experts who attempt to spot sanctions breakers.

For example, the Il-76 with tail number RA-76370 appeared in Bangui, CAR just when local media were reporting on the rotation of Wagner PMC mercenaries following Prigozhin's unsuccessful march on Moscow last summer. According to Sky News sources, on July 5, around 400 Wagner PMC fighters left the Central African Republic on two aircraft, Jeune Afrique cites an even larger number – between 500 and 600. It was precisely at this time that an Abakan Air plane arrived in Bangui from Makhachkala, Russia. That aircraft then returned to Russia via the route Entebbe–Dubai–Tyumen.

Flights of Abakan Air aircraft to Syria and Africa in 2023
Flights of Abakan Air aircraft to Syria and Africa in 2023
Sources: Flightradar24, RadarBox, ADS-B Exchange, social media, satellite imagery

In October, that same aircraft suddenly flew from Moscow to the Bobruisk military airfield in Belarus, and the next day to Mali via an unusual route – Mineralnye Vody–Djerba (Tunisia)–Bamako. A Wagner PMC camp was located only 58 kilometers from the Bobruisk airbase. A similar route was followed at the end of November by another one of the company’s planes, RA-76463. Both of these aircraft were then spotted in the Red Sea coastal city of Port Sudan.

The explanation for the non-standard route was provided by the blogger Prince Cherkassky, who works in a Russian archaeological mission in Syria and writes, among other things, about the presence of military personnel and mercenaries in the country:

“In conditions where all logistic support of 'those who cannot be named' via Syria has grinded to a halt (has been banned, actually), they are forced to rebuild routes. Interestingly, in this case logistic support is not provided via Mozdok (Russian Air Force airbase) and Libya (the situation there is roughly the same as in Syria), but via Mineralnye Vody and Tunisia. Mali is currently the hottest spot for them, where supplies are critical.”

The Abakan Air fleet often operates in Africa – mainly in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, and Sudan. The list of destinations could be the result of the airline's past cooperation with the World Food Program (WFP). From 2016-2019, the airline transported WFP humanitarian cargo to several African countries.

However, The Insider was unable to determine if this cooperation continues. In the database of contracts concluded by WFP in 2022-2023, there is no mention of Abakan Air, nor of its subsidiaries. Neither the WFP’s central office nor any of its regional offices responded to The Insider's inquiries regarding the involvement of Abakan Air flights to African countries in the humanitarian program. Coincidentally or not, the flights mentioned above coincide with the rotation schedule and the location of Wagner PMC mercenaries. The aforementioned TL-KMO and TL-KMZ freighters, which apparently also participated in the rotation, flew from Bangui to Syria and from Syria to Libya in the summer at the same time as the Abakan Air flights.

Over the past three years, Abakan Air has sold aircraft to companies that UN experts on Libya have caught violating the arms embargo. For example, EX-76007, which crashed in Gao in September after being reregistered, previously belonged to Sapsan Airline, which bought it from Abakan Air. . Before being sold to an unknown company in the CAR, TL-KMZ, which personally transported Prigozhin, also belonged to Abakan Air. However, this company has somehow never fallen under the scrutiny of UN arms embargo committees.

Abakan Air has sold aircrafts to companies that UN experts on Libya have caught violating the arms embargo

Two more aircraft suspected of use by Wagner PMC mercenaries, EX-76005 and EX-76008, were leased by Sapsan Airlines. Both of these aircraft previously belonged to the Ukrainian company ZetAvia. Some of ZetAvia’s aircraft changed ownership after the UN Security Council repeatedly accused the company — along with other Ukrainian airlines — of violating the arms embargo against Libya.

ZetAvia was implicated in delivering cargo to the forces of the Russian-backed Khalifa Haftar – who was also supported by Wagner PMC mercenaries. After that revelation, some of ZetAvia’s aircraft were re-registered to Kyrgyzstan. However, as The Insider has discovered, they continued to fly to the same destinations in Africa, likely providing an airbridge for various military formations on the continent, including Wagner PMC. Journalists from the Ukrainian publication Matrix of Freedom managed to prove the connection between ZetAvia and other companies that were caught violating the arms embargo.

It was precisely the aircraft of ZetAvia, Sapsan Airline, and their affiliated companies New Way Cargo Airlines and Fly Sky Airlines (Ukrainian and Kyrgyz subsidiaries, respectively) that participated in the logistic support chain that was established in the summer of 2023 to the west and north of Africa via Entebbe.

According to Africa Intelligence analysis, at least 70 flights were made from the UAE via Entebbe. Half of these aircraft flew on to Am-Djeress (northeast Chad), while the rest went to other airports in Chad, Mali, and CAR. Authorities in the UAE stated that the cargo delivered via Entebbe, particularly by the aircraft mentioned above, was humanitarian.

However, according to the Wall Street Journal, officials in Uganda discovered that the planes arriving from the Emirates were actually delivering weapons. Thereafter, airport staff in Entebbe were banned from inspecting cargo arriving from the UAE en route to Chad, Sudan, Mali, and CAR.

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