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Russian mercenaries could be set to continue their expansion into Africa’s strategically important Sahel region after the latest coup in the region, Western officials and analysts fear.

Ibrahim Traoré, a 34-year-old army captain, seized power in Burkina Faso on Friday, toppling Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, whom he accuses of failing to effectively counter growing extremist violence Islamic people in this unstable and poor country. .

The international community has widely condemned the ousting of Damiba, who himself overthrew the country’s democratically elected president in January.

Traoré has now promised to commit “all combat forces to refocus on the security issue and the restoration of the integrity of [the country’s] territory”.

Many believe Traore is likely to invite help from Moscow to bolster the country’s turbulent fight against Islamic extremists, which has forced 2 million people from their homes and killed thousands.

Over the weekend hundreds of protesters, some waving Russian flags, set fires, tore up barbed wire and threw rocks at the French embassy in the capital, Ouagadougou, and attacked a French cultural center in the town of Bobo-Dioulasso.

The coup comes amid another push by Russia to gain influence and access valuable raw materials in sub-Saharan Africa in recent months, following years of cautious but opportunistic efforts across the continent.

Some of the efforts are led by paramilitaries from the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked business complex founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close ally of Putin.

Prigozhin reportedly hailed the new power grab in Burkina Faso in a statement on Saturday, calling Traore “a truly courageous son of the homeland”.

Wagner already has a presence in at least six other African countries, while Russian influence operations have been reported in many others.

The Moscow campaign was a significant success, with expansion often following the rise to power in unstable but resource-rich countries of factions that used to favor Russia over historical partners in the West.

Far from draining resources to Europe, the war in Ukraine appears to have intensified Moscow’s campaign in Africa with evidence of new and expanded activity. Operations across the Sahel in particular have been strengthened.

In July, Gen. Stephen Townsend, the outgoing commander of US Africa Command, told reporters that although Wagner had reduced the size of his deployment in Libya in order “to move…agents to fight in Ukraine” , the group had not done the same. in Mali, where Wagner is said to have around 700 fighters.

“They seem to lean into Mali as much as they always have,” Townsend said.

Wagner was hired by the new regime in Mali last year to fight Islamist extremists after a second coup nine months after its president was overthrown in August 2020. Relations with Paris have deteriorated sharply and a major counter -French insurgency in Mali has since been reduced and violence has escalated.

In Sudan, where Wagner has been involved in a major gold mining operation for several years, Russian civilian and military aircraft have increased the frequency of their flight rotations. Several planes were spotted making weekly flights to an airstrip northwest of the city of Omdurman, sometimes carrying senior Russian military officers. Up to five landed at the facility in a single day earlier this year.

The ground for new deployments of Wagner fighters has often been prepared elsewhere in Africa by comprehensive campaigns over months, sometimes years, involving both social media and street protests.

On Monday, a Reuters reporter saw a group burning a French flag just hours after the coup in Burkina Faso, while placards read: “Together, we say no to France. Damn France!

Armel Kaboré, a supporter of the coup, told Reuters: “Today, the people of Burkina Faso ask for the support of Russia to accompany them in this fierce struggle that is imposed on us.”

Alassane Thiemtore, who was among the protesters, said he wanted “cooperation with Russia… [and] the departure of Damiba and France”.

At least three separate videos shared online over the weekend showed soldiers driving armored vehicles and waving Russian flags, as crowds chanted, “Russia! Russia!”

A Western official, based in the Sahel, told the Guardian that Damiba, the ousted president, initially promised senior soldiers he would seek help from Russia, but then decided not to once in power.

“He could have brought in advisers, or guns, or Wagner, or whatever, but that didn’t happen and that’s one of the things that ended his critics in the forces. armies,” the official said.

In recent days, some Traore supporters have openly called on Burkina Faso to replace its once close ties with France with a new alliance with Russia.

“A point of contention that divided the MPSR [junta]the army and even the population for months is the choice of international partners,” said Constantin Gouvy, a Burkinabé researcher at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute for International Relations.

“Damiba was leaning towards France, but we could see the MPSR more actively exploring alternatives now, with Turkey or Russia for example,” Gouvy added.

Burkina Faso has been at the center of the growing expansion of groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, after violence that began in neighboring Mali in 2012 spread to other countries south of the Sahara. .

Earlier this year, investigators from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab discovered that pro-Russian content had spread on West African social media platforms in the months leading up to January’s military coup. 2022 in Burkina Faso and that online support for Moscow had been growing ever since. Several sites were very critical of France and called for Russian intervention.