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Central African Republic releases detained French soldiers

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Adrienne Surprenant/Adrienne Surprenant / Collectif Item

Central African Republic

The four soldiers of the French army operating under the banner of the UN arrested three days ago in Central African Republic and accused on social networks of having wanted to "assassinate" the head of state were released Thursday.

"The four staff members of the Minusca (the UN mission in the Central African Republic) arrested at Bangui airport have just been released," announced on Twitter the head of the Minusca Mankeur Ndiaye. The information was confirmed by the French embassy in Bangui, on Twitter, and by the Bangui prosecutor's office to AFP, without further details.

The four soldiers of the French army's Foreign Legion corps, of French, Romanian, Italian and Bulgarian nationality, had been apprehended by security forces while wearing fatigues, heavily armed and wearing their Minusca badges, aboard an unmarked armored vehicle on Monday in front of Bangui airport.

The French embassy and the UN immediately indicated that they were members of the close security of the chief of staff of the UN peacekeeping force, General Stéphane Marchenoir, whom they had just dropped off to catch a plane to Paris.

But immediately, photographs of their arsenal well laid out on the ground as well as their identity papers, like a video of their arrest, had been widely circulated on private accounts on social networks, some accusing them of having wanted to "assassinate" President Faustin Archange Touadéra who had just landed in Bangui.

"Gross manipulation"

The UN and France had denounced a "gross manipulation" but the Bangui prosecutor's office had opened the next day a "regular investigation to shed light on the facts."

France regularly accuses the Central African Republic of being "complicit" in an anti-French campaign orchestrated by Moscow, notably through countless trolls on social networks and in certain media.

For its part, Moscow blames Paris for accusing Wagner's paramilitaries of having seized power and resources in the country.

The opening of the investigation came on the same day that France and the United States accused Wagner's "mercenaries" of "executing" and "massacring" dozens of civilians in January, through the voices of their ambassadors before the UN Security Council.

Paris and Washington also blame Russian paramilitaries for a "systematic" campaign of "terror" in the Central African Republic, where they fight rebels alongside the regular army.

A Russian diplomat at the UN denied this and accused Paris and Washington of wanting to discredit Russian "specialists" in the Central African Republic.

In this country in civil war since 2013 and facing a threatening offensive of the rebellion more than a year ago, President Touadéra had called Moscow to the rescue of his poorly trained and destitute army and hundreds of Russian paramilitaries had been added to many others present for three years. Unarmed instructors" according to Moscow, "Wagner's mercenaries" according to the UN and France.

In a few months, they had pushed back the armed groups that were then occupying two-thirds of the country and recovered the vast majority of the territory. But at the cost of human rights violations, the UN and France regularly accuse.

On board a "suspicious vehicle", in possession of four automatic pistols, three assault rifles, a machine gun and grenades, the four men were "less than 30 meters from the passage of the presidential convoy", the Bangui public prosecutor, Laurent Lengande, said on Tuesday, adding: "The vehicle had been followed by the police intelligence services for two months".

On Wednesday, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, demanded their "immediate release", saying that the procedure established between the UN and the Central African Republic in case of suspected offences concerning UN personnel "had not been respected".

"The seriousness of these arrests is not to be overlooked," a senior French military official told AFP shortly after their release.

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