Revealed: the mercenary force is spotted in Port Sudan and battles north of the capital Khartoum
Richard Holmes, Molly Blackall
Russia’s Wagner mercenary group is operating in Sudan and has been actively involved in fighting in the country as UK citizens continue to flee, can reveal.
Private security consultants and sources on the ground told that heavily armed Wagner troops have been spotted working in Port Sudan, where civilians are being evacuated from the bloodshed.
They have also been seen engaged in violence 800km away near the capital Khartoum, the centre of fighting between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), sources said.
Port Sudan is strategically vital for Wagner to enable vast gold shipments to the Middle East, and the area has seen constant patrolling by its forces.
Security contractors, who are on the ground working to evacuate citizens from the conflict zone, said Wagner troops had been patrolling the port on foot and in small boats, monitoring international efforts to evacuate citizens.
“They’re definitely in Port Sudan, their ships are there, their boats are there,” one of the security sources told i. “They’ve been walking around and that’s been a big concern.”
A second security contractor said: “They’re on the ground in Port Sudan at the moment. The Russians are going to use their patrols there because they want that port to become a military naval base.”
The UK Ministry of Defence is understood to be tracking the activity of the Russian mercenary force in Sudan, and monitoring their activity at the port. The UK plans to send two warships there in an attempt to evacuate British nationals caught in the crossfire of the war.
Port Sudan is a crucial evacuation site for many civilians, enabling escape to Saudi Arabia via boat. The UK Government has confirmed that British military teams are doing reconnaissance in the city as a possible route to safety.
An emergency unit of UK Foreign Office officials is currently operating in Port Sudan and are offering support to British citiens trying to escape by sea. British residents who do not have a UK passport, such as NHS workers who did not qualify for the RAF airlift, are also able to receive support from UK officials there.
A UK intelligence source told that Port Sudan was a “big hub” for Wagner money and confirmed troops from the private military company (PMC) had been seen there.
Sources working to support civilians in Sudan said Wagner’s interest in the goldmines was thought to be linked to the war in Ukraine, with the mercenaries requiring more resources and wealth to support their efforts against the Ukrainian army.
Wagner’s long history in Sudan
The notorious Russian private military company has made a name for ransacking natural resources from mineral-rich countries in Africa, and has long had an interest in Sudan.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder and boss of the group, has claimed that “not a single Wagner PMC fighter has been present in Sudan” for more than two years. However, pictures and messages shared online have cast doubt on this.
July 2022: A video was shared on Telegram purportedly showing Wagner mercenaries carrying out parachute-landing exercises for the Sudanese military, according to the BBC.
Oct 2021: A Russian mercenary, whose identity is not known, shared stories of himself and colleagues carrying out operations in Sudan on Instagram.
July 2020: Then-US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin claimed in July 2020 that Prigozhin and his “network” were “exploiting Sudan’s natural resources for personal gain and spreading malign influence around the globe”, and named Wagner as carrying out “activities” in the country which had “generated insecurity and incited violence against innocent civilians”.
At the time, the Treasury sanctioned Prigozhin by targeting three individuals and five entities which it said were “directly involved in furthering Prigozhin’s operations in Sudan” but did not name them.
2019 and earlier: Wagner was reportedly involved in the highest level of Sudanese politics during the leadership of autocrat Omar al-Bashir, which ended in April 2019.
According to the US, Wagner was responsible for helping al-Bashir suppress pro-democracy protests, including through public executions and disinformation campaigns.
Two years earlier, M Invest – a Russian firm controlled by Prigozhin which the US claims is a front for Wagner – was given permission to explore gold-mining sites in Sudan.
In 2021, images shared on Telegram channels linked to Wagner appeared to show Wagner commanders with the Sudanese military during a 2019 ceremony, the BBC reported.
The first sighting, on 19 April, was documented by a security source monitoring Port Sudan. They described seeing a number of small boats containing white Russian troops conducting patrols around a Saudi Arabian warship. The warship was used as one of the first evacuation operations to get civilians away from the conflict.
Their presence was confirmed by two more sources, who saw them at the port as recently as Wednesday.
The second sighting of Wagner troops was on Monday this week in the city of Omdurman, which sits on the opposite bank of the River Nile from the capital, Khartoum, and is a 16-hour drive from Port Sudan.
Two security sources operating in the area described white militia involved in an exchange of gunfire during the night. Both sources suspected Wagner’s involvement as the group has become widely known to operate in the area since the conflict began.
One of the sources told i that “it could only have been [Wagner] as no other whites have automatic weapons in that area.”
The two sightings are the first reported involvement of the private army since fighting broke out there on 15 April, and pose serious questions about the geopolitical ramifications of the battle raging in Sudan.
Sudan gold ‘used to fund Ukraine war’
Wagner has denied being involved in the conflict, although it has been widely reported that it is providing weapons to the RSF. One intelligence source said there was information to suggest they were behind much of the RSF’s actions and that the plan was to “destabilise then take over”.
Sources on the ground confirmed Wagner’s role in Sudan is “famous” to many people in the country and that the group are supporting the RSF to “secure” their investment in Sudan.
“They have investment in gold mining in Sudan and have a good relationship with the RSF leader Hemedti [Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo]. They are very close to the Russian government,” the source said.
“It is also presumed that they had not anticipated that the Ukraine war would last this long so they need full access to the gold mining in Sudan as a source of funding their continuous involvement in the Ukraine war.”
Another source assisting civilians in Sudan said it was “fairly widely known” among those on the ground that Wagner fighters were operating in the country, particularly in the west.
Last week, CNN reported that the group was supplying the RSF with missiles to aid their fight against the Sudanese Armed Forces.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his “deep concern” over Wagner’s involvement in the country and warned that the Russian group risked aggravating Sudan’s conflict.
Prigozhin is understood to have been part of Putin’s inner circle, but an ongoing feud between the two men means the Russian leader is not thought to have any control over the group.
Wagner’s growing presence in Africa
Wagner’s presence in Africa is believed to be expanding rapidly, with Western military officials appearing to struggle to respond to them.
The mercenary group is reported to be present in between eight and twelve African countries after bolstering its activity in the last six years.
They appear to operate by throwing their weight behind a political group to gain influence in a country, whether through active battles or disinformation campaigns.
US secret intelligence documents shared in the recent Discord leak revealed that the group is attempting to establish a “confederation” of anti-Western states in Africa, with the surge in Wagner’s presence in the region causing concern among military and intelligence officials.
But the leaked files show that US military and intelligence agencies appear to have done little to prevent their advancement, and there have been few successful attacks against them.
As well as being active in Sudan, Wagner fighters were recorded as sustaining heavy losses while fighting for control of goldmines in the Central African Republic in February this year, and retreated from battles with jihadists in Mozambique in 2019.
Wagner fighters helped to remove French influence in Mali, and attempted to recruit and train Chadian rebels.
Human Rights Watch recorded Wagner using banned landmines and booby traps in Libya between 2019 and 2020, and the leaked military files refer to the destruction of a Wagner logistics aircraft in the country.
In February, Sudan’s ruling military concluded a review of an agreement allowing Russia to set up a naval base with up to 300 Russian troops and up to four navy ships in Port Sudan, after General Dagalo held talks with senior Russian officials in Moscow. The deal, which was opposed by local tribal leaders, is awaiting the formation of a civilian government before it takes effect.
Russia is also accused of colluding with Sudan’s military leadership in enabling billions of dollars in gold to bypass the Sudanese state and deprive the poverty-stricken country of resources. Wagner is accused of plundering natural resources and smuggling it through Port Sudan, providing the PMC with a further strategic advantage.
“It’s all about gold reserves,” a private security contractor working in the country told i. “What Wagner is trying to do is secure themselves a way to be able to transport their gold out of there and to transport grain back.”
Prigozhin has repeatedly denied involvement in the conflict, writing on Telegram: “Due to the large number of inquiries from various foreign media about Sudan, most of which are provocative, we consider it necessary to inform everyone that Wagner staff have not been in Sudan for more than two years.”
Campaign of disinformation to hide Wagner role
can also reveal that a flurry of social media accounts linked to Wagner have been sharing disinformation in an apparent bid to hide their involvement.
A Telegram account, which is allegedly paid for by Prigozhin, has been repeatedly denying that Wagner is present and alleging that such claims of Wagner activity in Sudan are French propaganda, according to monitoring firm Logically.
The firm’s experts said that a Telegram military chat, Colonel Cassad, was the primary channel making the claims, and that it had been found to be funded by Prigozhin during an investigation by Ukrainian activists.
Some of the most notable denials of Wagner involvement in Sudan appeared to coincide with the sightings of the mercenaries.
A day after the first sighting on 19 April, a Wagner-sponsored Telegram account posted: “The Commander of the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces denied the participation of PMC Wagner in the fighting in Sudan, as well as any help from PMC Wagner.
“Earlier in French press, there were reports that military assistance had been sent from Libya (via IL-76 aircraft) to Sudan for the RSF. Prigozhin recently stated that PMC Wagner has not worked in Sudan for almost two years and has nothing to do with the ongoing fighting.
“Simultaneously, it is clear that Egypt is participating in the conflict (air force and special forces), and possibly Eritrea and Ethiopia as well.”
Hours later, it repeated a similar message: “Prigozhin, in response to French (bullshit) about PMC Wagner’s participation in the conflict in Sudan (The French are salty about their losses in CAR, Mali, and Burkina Faso), called for peace in Sudan and said he was ready to mediate between the two parties.”
On the day of the second sighting on 24 April, a post on another Russian Telegram channel with 90,000 subscribers read: “I’m reading ‘analysis’ on Sudan. Experts. And I faint with delight. Because there’s not just crumbs, but bricks scattered in this country (Sudan) by Aunt (Victoria) Nuland, everybody is trying to blame PMC Wagner who deserve thunderous applause. In the frenzy of arrogance and mediocrity, they try to pull an owl over the globe (something very difficult to do).”
Claims seeking to blame the US for starting the conflict – over an agreement by the Sudanese Government to house a Russian naval base – are also rife on social media.
One post from a Twitter account with more than 60,000 followers in late April claimed Sudan had become the stage for a proxy war between Russia and the US, gaining 100 retweets and 450 likes.
Another post claiming a coup in Sudan “started when Russia and Sudan agreed to place a navy base in one of Sudan’s ports” received more than 600 retweets and 1,400 likes.
Richard Holmes is a senior reporter focusing on investigations into national security, economic crime, and social injustice. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist who previously worked at BuzzFeed News.