Authorities in the Central African Republic alleged Wednesday that a leading rebel group was behind the murder of nine Chinese gold miners last month, despite denials by the insurgents.
The rebels blamed the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, hired to protect several lucrative gold and diamond mines operated by Russian firms in the country, for the attack.
Justice Minister Arnaud Djoubaye Abazene said the killers were "indisputably elements from the CPC", or Coalition of Patriots for Change, quoting a final report from an inquiry into the March 19 deaths.
The CPC, an alliance of rebel groups formed in December 2020 to overthrow President Faustin-Archange Touadera, has denied any involvement in what it has called a "despicable and barbaric" act.
It has not provided evidence for its claim that Wagner mercenaries were involved in the murders.
But the justice minister also declined to provide details from the report accusing the rebels and journalists were not allowed to ask questions during his press conference.
Hundreds of Wagner paramilitaries were deployed to the CAR in 2018, and their numbers increased in 2020 to fend off an assault on the capital by the CPC.
The nine miners had been employed by China's Gold Coast Group at the Chimbolo mine, 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Bambari, the main town in the Ouaka prefecture.
Abazene told the press conference the president thanked "our Russian allies who managed to neutralise certain perpetrators, seized evidence and put to flight the rest of these criminals".
- Militias vs Wagner -
Two Chinese officials deployed by Beijing also appeared at the press conference, though Abazene declined to identify them, and acknowledged that they had not visited the scene of the attack, 400 kilometres (250 miles) east of Bangui.
China's President Xi Jinping had issued after the killings "important instructions, demanding an all-out effort to treat the wounded, handle the aftermath in a timely manner, severely punish perpetrators in accordance with the law, and ensure the safety of Chinese citizens".
Two people were seriously wounded, China added.
The CAR, one of the world's poorest countries, has been in the throes of civil conflict since 2013, when a Muslim-majority rebel coalition, the Seleka, ousted former president Francois Bozize.
Militias hold sway over large tracts of territory and often clash over access to minerals and other resources, though Russian and Chinese companies dominate mining for gold and diamonds in the Bambari region.
Civilians are often victims of the conflict, with the United Nations and international aid groups accusing all sides of carrying out war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Since their arrival, the Wagner mercenaries have helped push back most of the rebels to their home territories, allowing Central African security forces to retake control of several cities and mining operations.
Bangui is also thought to have given Wagner and associated companies contracts to operate several mines.
Rebel groups have since adopted guerilla strategies for targeting CAR soldiers and their Russian allies.
Additional sources • AFP