The Sudanese government has denied reports that Russian mercenaries are aiding security forces in cracking down on anti-austerity protests that have rocked the country over the past month.
Sudanese Interior Minister, Ahmed Bilal Osman, dismissed a report by the Times last week that published photographs of troops – allegedly from the shadowy Russian military services company Wagner – in the streets of Sudanese capital Khartoum in December. The images show dozens of white men dressed in camouflage, being transported in trucks as they observe anti-government protests in the city.
Osman condemned the report as "completely false […] a mere fabrication intended to offend the government," adding that: "If there were Russians, the demonstrators would say that." Osman's comments ignore the opposition sources quoted by the Times article, who confirmed having witnessed Russian soldiers providing strategic and practical training to Sudanese security forces.
Anonymous sources from the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) also confirmed the presence of Wagner Russian military personnel in the country to reporters last week, but refused to elaborate on their specific activities.
The interior minister stressed that the security situation in the country was fully under control and did not require the intervention of foreign mercenaries, adding: "The police and other security forces still have the lead and continue their professional handling of the protests."
At least 40 people have been killed and some 500 injured in over 380 rallies against austerity measures and the political autocracy of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, which erupted across the country last month.
Despite the demonstrations' peaceful nature, security forces have responded with violence. Some 1,000 people are believed to have been arrested and tortured, particularly students who have been detained en masse, with many claiming they were forced to confess to being part of a terror cell.
The latest protests were triggered by a government decision to triple bread prices from one Sudanese pound ($0.02) to three Sudanese pounds ($0.063). Food prices have soared since the start of this year, after the government stopped state-funded imports of wheat.
Sudan has been facing heightened economic uncertainty in recent years with an acute shortage of foreign currency, resulting in the Sudanese pound plunging against the dollar. Despite the US lifting economic sanctions last year, international banks have continued to be wary of doing business with financial institutions in the country.
However, Al-Bashir has vowed not to relinquish his 30-year rule, stressing that the current demonstrations are the result of a foreign conspiracy. Russia is considered a crucial ally of the African country, whose president has faced economic isolation from the West and is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against his own people. It is suspected that Sudan has enlisted the help of Russian troops as the Kremlin seeks to further develop trade, security and defence links with sub-Saharan Africa. Moscow has already invested in civil nuclear energy projects in the country, with head of the Sudanese Parliamentary Defence Subcommittee, Al-Hadi Adam Musa, confirming on Saturday that a draft military agreement signed between Sudan and Russia would pave the way for the latter to build a military base on the Red Sea coast in the future.
During a visit to Moscow to attend the 2018 World Cup Final in July, Al-Bashir met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with both leaders pledging to enhance military cooperation between their two countries. Al-Bashir also made a surprise visit to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad last month, a move believed to have benefitted stalwart-ally Russia by promoting international recognition of the Syrian government as the country's civil war winds to a close.
In 2017, the US Treasury added Wagner to a blacklist of Russian individuals and entities subject to sanctions because of its illegal involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. It is estimated that the group also has some 2,500 fighters operating in Syria.