A Russian official active in his country’s efforts to gain a stronghold in the Central African Republic was wounded by a package bomb in the country’s capital, Bangui, on Friday, according to the Russian foreign ministry and state media.
The official, Dimitri Sytyi, was identified as the head of the local branch of the Russian House, the cultural arm of the Russian foreign ministry. But Western officials have described Mr. Sytyi as an important figure in the local branch of the Wagner Group, Russia’s largest private military contractor and a major fighting force in the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
The Wagner Group has in recent years been expanding its presence in several African countries, and has gained a particularly powerful influence in the poor but mineral-rich Central African Republic.
Mr. Sytyi and Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who is the head of the Wagner Group, were among eight people sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2020 for their operations in Africa.
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that the attack on Mr. Sytyi was a “terrorist act” and an attempt to derail its good relations with the Central African Republic. Mr. Sytyi was in critical condition in a hospital, a Russian government official said.
Some Western officials questioned whether the attack really took place, or whether it could have been staged by Russia as part of a campaign to discredit the Central African Republic’s onetime ally — France.
Mr. Prigozhin immediately accused France of being behind the bombing — which the French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, denied and called “a good example of Russian propaganda.”
Russia’s state-run news agency released photographs of what it said was the crime scene, with debris scattered across a desk and uniformed Central African officials taking measurements.
Next to an envelope on the desk lay a perfectly intact note written in Russian: “This is from all the French. Russians will get out of Africa.”
Wagner military operatives in the Central African Republic have helped prop up the shaky government there and established themselves in major mining towns. They have been accused by United Nations experts of committing human rights abuses.
A landlocked country with a wealth of oil, gold and diamond deposits, vast forests and fertile land, the Central African Republic has suffered periods of extreme instability since winning independence from its French colonizers in 1960. Its people are among the poorest in the world.
Trying to keep the country together in the wake of a protracted, deadly uprising — as well as to take control of the diamond trade — the government turned to Russia in 2017, after France announced its military mission there was ending, leaving only a few troops to support the U.N. peacekeeping mission. Central African officials said they felt that Russia was the only country that would help them.
Relations between the African country and France worsened as the Russian military presence increased, and last year, Paris decided to withdraw all its remaining forces. The last contingent of 47 troops left the country on Thursday, the French government said — a day before the Russians reported the package bomb attack.
It was the third purported attack to take place in the country within a month, and not the first to be blamed on France.
On Thursday night, an unidentified armed drone appeared above Bambari, a town northeast of Bangui where Wagner personnel are stationed, according to local media. Residents of Bambari reported heavy gunfire in the town after it was spotted.
And in late November, a fighter jet bombed the town of Bossangoa, according to the president of the country’s national assembly, Simplice Sarandji, targeting a former agricultural facility that local officials say is now used by Wagner forces.
Afterward, a pro-government militia declared that France was behind the bombing, attacking the Central African Republic from its neighbor, Chad.
In a message posted on VK, a Russian social media platform, Mr. Prigozhin asserted that Mr. Sytyi had received a threatening letter six weeks ago, containing a threat to Mr. Sytyi’s son, who lives in France.
A Western official, who was not authorized to give interviews and spoke on condition of anonymity, said they had received reports that Mr. Sytyi was treated by Russian doctors at a hospital in Bangui, but couldn’t confirm whether the attack had really taken place, and if so, where.
The official also said that the quick reaction from Russian news websites and outlets affiliated with Mr. Prigozhin suggested that it may have been a staged operation to blame France.
Maxime Audinet, a researcher at the Paris-based IRSEM, a think tank affiliated with the French defense ministry, and an expert on Russia’s influence operations, pointed out that social media accounts and news outlets affiliated with Mr. Prigozhin had mounted disinformation campaigns blaming France for crimes committed across former French colonies in Africa.
Soon after reports of the package bomb emerged, pictures were posted on a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel of a small crowd of Central African boys and young men outside the Russian House in Bangui, waving small Russian flags, and carrying signs that read, in French, “Get Well Soon Dmitri.”
Mr. Audinet said that Mr. Sytyi had initially moved to the Central African Republic to work as a translator for Valeriy Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence official and top adviser to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic.
The European Union imposed sanctions on Mr. Zakharov last year, accusing him of being responsible for human rights abuses in the African country, including extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings.
After Mr. Zakharov left the Central African Republic last year, Mr. Audinet said, Mr. Sytyi took charge of all the nonmilitary activities of the Wagner Group in the African country, including misinformation operations and economic and mining activities.
Mr. Sytyi is 33, according to his résumé, which was obtained by the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative organization, and which describes him as a former resident of France fluent in English, Spanish and French. According to the Dossier Center, Mr. Sytyi used to be an employee of the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory funded by Mr. Prigozhin.
Wagner operatives have also been present in Libya, Mali, Mozambique and Sudan, among other African countries.
This week, at the U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, accused the new military leaders of Burkina Faso, who seized power in a coup in October, of having signed a deal with the Wagner group.
Ruth Maclean and Elian Peltier reported from Dakar, Senegal, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin.